The Future of Native Apps vs Browser Apps

What do You Think?

My opinion is that HTML5 browser based applications are poised to steal the spotlight away from native apps (the app store type), perhaps leaving app stores as a mere shadow of their former self. After all, who wants to have to produce and maintain umpteen different applications each targeting a different phone operating system and version when a single well designed web site (application) will do the job just as well if not better?

A little background

Back when I started getting into mobile web back in 2006 there were no iPhone or Android smart phones. I developed a food and drink finder type of mobile website. Long story short I used user agent detection and had code on the server to issue forth either mobile or PC oriented pages. Even five years ago the task of adapting content to look pretty on a myriad of screen sizes present and anticipated was too daunting so I crafted the presentation aspects to automatically adapt to screen size. I learned that in 2006 only pretty limited and quirky mobile browsers existed. I established a minimal set of generally well supported XML and CSS and went forth. I did not use javascript as it was not adequately supported on any phones at that time. This approach appeared to work well and avoided many pitfalls of attempting to adapt to each platform through code which wasn’t and still isn’t really possible to do adequately well.

The arrival of the iPhone of course shook life into the mainstream mobile web market, at least in the USA where it pretty much didn’t exist until then. My site worked very well on even the early iPhone.

The introduction and explosive reception given to “app store” native mini apps pretty much put the kabosh on any business potential of my site. Native apps offered access to geo location, snazzy graphics, shake sensor, etc while browser support lingered in the dark ages i.e, pre HTML5.

Is HTML5 a Game Changer for Native Apps?

My experiences led me to throw in the towel on the business side of making any money from my browser based app – it could not compete against native apps (well that would be the iPhone kind in 2007). I came to suspect that the likes of Apple were purposefully dilly dallying on improving browser support in order to make hay from the interest in their app stores. Fast forward to 2010 and my view is that the game is changing quite drastically. Already, the latest iPhone and Android based phones do support a significant number of HTML5 features, for example javascript access to location information, enhanced graphics APIs, local data stores, that put the spotlight back on the browser based application as the natural choice for mobile web users. Of course, there will always be some applications where native apps make sense – those requiring very low level hardware interaction for example such as some high end games, or access to the connector port signals.

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