Open Web Apps and the New Era of Mobile Development

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Aaron Pava


May 12, 2011

Open Web Apps and the New Era of Mobile Development

Image by ekkun

A Big Week

In the ever-evolving world of technology, some weeks can stand out more than others. More often than not, the distinguishing weeks are defined by either a high-profile conference, a groundbreaking product launch, a transformative magazine article or shocking viral video. In the case of any of the above, Twitter and the blogosphere predictably ignite with commentary on the disruptive technology, and the implications of the new possibilities.

This was one of those weeks.

Native Apps

This buzz has been all about the shift of momentum from "native apps," like those developed for Apple's proprietary iPhone, and the growing movement towards standardized Web Apps that work on all platforms, including mobile, tablets and PCs, regardless of the form or operating system.

In a way, we've been here before. Over the last 15 years, the deviation from HTML and CSS standards in the browser-wars has been one of the most frustrating aspect of building on the web. Designers at one point were accustomed to 'optimize' for a particular browser, since what rendered correctly in Netscape might look terrible in Internet Explorer. The browser market became fragmented and rather than fulfilling on the promise of HTML to display correctly on all machines, developers needed to tweak their code in awkward ways for consistant display across the multiple platforms.

Initially, when Apple released the iPhone in the July 2007 there was no App Store. In fact, the vision announced by Steve Jobs at the time was for applications to be created using Web 2.0 Internet standards. Then in March 2008, in huge reversal of direction, Apple announced their iPhone 2.0 beta release which included an iOS Software Development Kit (SDK), abandoning web app standards. Fast forward to the last few years and it's only gotten worse. To date, over 10 Billion apps have been downloaded from the App Store, with 30% of all revenue directed to Apple based on their Terms of Service.

Web Apps

Luckily, it seems the pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction. 

Notably, the Google I/O conference took place in San Francisco this week which focused on building the next generation of web and mobile applications with open technologies such as Android and Google Chrome. Big announcements included the continued success of HTML5 (as a case for a true replacement for native apps) as well as updated APIs for Android. Google has continued to push the envelope with some of the best HTML5 work to date, including as the Gmail web app. Of course, Google is also riding two horses here; the Chrome OS built in HTML5, but also the native app ecosystem build on top of Android's OS.

Earlier this year, Bret Taylor, CTO of Facebook, spoke regarding their big shift to focus on mobile. He's noted that Facebook will move to primarily mobile development in 2011 with an emphasis on building with HTML5. We have yet to see what is in the works, but are expecting a rollout very soon.

And now this week, Twitter announced their own new mobile app built entirely in HTML5 from the ground up for phones and tablets. This is huge news, as it's a giant step in the ability to access the service regardless of what device you use. Twitter's new app is being slowly rolled out over the coming weeks, and no doubt will heavily reviewed. It will be interesting to see how the web app holds up to it's native counterpart.

Regardless, it is most clear that the predominance of native apps is accelerating to it's rightful conclusion: open will beat closed. The tide has shifted back to standards, and leaders at Google, Twitter and Facebook will be forging a better and open mobile web.

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Hey Aaron! Excellent post!I'd like to share another excellent post you & your readers would be interested in: "Native Apps vs. Web Apps: How to make the right choice for your business?" Do share you thoughts on it.
Aaron, in my line of work, we're also starting to see the pendulum swing away from native mobile apps and toward mobile Web apps based on HTML5. One of the reasons, and one that you don't touch on in your article, is that the fragmentation of mobile operating systems coupled with the increasing need for mobile application development is causing developer burnout. And it’s also costing companies money. Because instead of having to target one platform, they have to target three or four mobile OSes, and then they still need a Web app for business applications. These are problems that can be fixed by building for the mobile Web and not for a specific mobile OS. And by the mobile Web, I mean HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. Some developers still harbor the misconception that a lot of the functionality available in a mobile OS platform can't be tapped through HTML5, but that is simply not the case. It will be interesting to watch how what is essentially a new platform war -- that is native mobile apps vs. the mobile Web -- plays out over the next few years. Richard Rabins Co-Chairman Alpha Software, Inc.
Social media platforms are focusing more on mobile development. With tech advancements, this is on the rise...
"I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There's a great future in plastics." Such was the advice given to Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate" The advise that this year's graduating class should get this month is "Web Apps, there's a great future in Web Apps."This year the iPad and other tablets are sure to be the must-have graduation gift, or off-to-college gift. Advances in laptops over the past 2 years have barely warranted an upgrade, and while a new mac book will set you back $1200 to $2200, the iPad will cost around $700 depending on the model.I recently read:
  • In Q4 of 2010, smartphone sales surpassed PC sales.
  • Mobile phones are predicted  to overtake PCs as the most common way people access the web by 2013—two short years away.
  • The average smartphone user visits up  to 24 websites a day. We’re not talking about apps, but actual websites accessed via mobile browsers.
Businesses and nonprofit organizations need to consider this rapidly shifting landscape as they plan their technology purchases and internet strategy now, not "over the coming years".  The future is here, if you are building a website now (or web app), you have to think about how users will interact with it via mobile devices (smart phones and tablets).

Great article Aaron! I love the last part:

...the predominance of native apps is accelerating to its rightful conclusion: open will beat closed. The tide has shifted back to standards...