Web, native or hybrid APPs?

Publishers are hit with quite some techie talk when trying to understand what technology they can use to ditribute digitally their products. “APPS” are of course part of the talk, let’s try and put some definition in place before we get too far.

There has been some hype around mobile applications giving a distorted and narrow picture of mobile apps, which doesn’t help any business to make an informed choice about mobile strategy. If you believe mobile apps are the right path for your business, then you need to consider all smartphone platforms (including the 85 percent that are not Apple), if not all handsets (including the 97 percent that are not Apple). And you must consider browser-based mobile apps (Web apps) – as well as download (native) apps.

This is not to say that APPLE has not started a revolution, because it HAS. Only that in front of a choice of business strategies and markets you need the whole picture.

In the media you read mainly about native apps, leading to think that not much about web apps is known. Explaining to a marketing department exactly what a web app is might not be easy, especially when giving a distinction between mobile web app and mobile web.

Web apps are not new – in fact Apple had a store for Web apps before it had the Apple App Store – but the media remains largely ignorant to their existence or massive potential. Some analysts are already predicting the decline of the download app:

“App stores aren’t going away: following the 2013 peak in demand, the number of downloads in 2015 will have decreased only seven or eight percent. But as our use of the mobile Internet evolves, demand will increasingly shift elsewhere. Why? The mobile Web is getting more and more sophisticated, so that more subscribers will use the functionality on mobile Web sites themselves rather than dedicated apps. We see two emerging trends: first, many applications (increasingly built on Web standards) will migrate from app stores to regular Web sites, and for some sites you won’t need an app at all. In addition, more and more popular applications will be preloaded on mobile devices. Social networking apps in particular will be pre-loaded on new products”. Mark Beccue, ABI Research (May 2010)

Mobile applications or apps are compact software programs that perform specific tasks for the mobile user. There are two types of mobile app:

1) The native app must be installed on the device; they either arrive pre-installed on the phone – these might include address book, calendar, calculator, games, maps and Web browser – or they can be downloaded for free or a small fee from Web sites – today these sites are called app stores. Native apps are either written specifically for a type of handset – as many iPhone applications have been – so they can take more advantage of a phone’s functions, or as Java applications – this was the norm with download apps until recently – to run on many handsets.
2) The Web app resides on server and is accessed via the Internet. It performs specified tasks – potentially all the same ones as a native application – for the mobile user, usually by downloading part of the application to the device for local processing each time it is used. The software is written as Web pages in HTML and CSS, with the interactive parts in Java. This means that the same application can be used by most devices that can surf the Web (regardless of the brand of phone).

It is much easier for the mobile user to conceptualize what this means in practice with the download app: click (pay) – download – install – click on icon – run.

The boundary between mobile Web site/content and mobile Web app is not well defined at all. The word “application” started to be applied to Web sites that provided user interactions and capabilities that used to be available only through installable software, but typically these might be features of a web app:

• Self-contained (keep you in their controlled space as much as they can);
• Rich/interactive user interface, possibly mimicking the native user interface (UI) of the device (not always possible);
• Using advanced device capabilities (geolocation, camera integration, etc.) and other technologies being developed by the Device APIs and Policy Working Group;
• Action oriented (rather than information oriented) – a tool more than a book;
• Not relying heavily on, or hiding when possible, the browser (back button, reload button, URL bar).
• Working off-line (e.g. using HTML5 ApplicationCache, localStorage, and indexed database)

There are probably more of these, and, of course, not all Web apps fit all these parameters; but what most people consider Web apps will fit at least some of these.

Gmail, Facebook, GMaps are good examples of web apps, and of course the FT’s web app story (as opposed to an iOS APP).

Currently Web apps’ advantages primarily lie with application developers and publishers. Direct control over the application’s distribution and cost advantages are usually the main reasons for launching a Web application. Web apps are both cheaper and faster to develop and maintain, and last but not least use platform independent technology (HTML5, CSS, Javascript).

The disadvantages: non – native development means you can’t really make the most of the piece of hardware you’re running on, as you’re developing for every device out there (so you’re not developing specifically for a “chosen” one). Another big factor is browser limitations (will HTML5 fill the gap)?

Also it’s worth noting that many native apps on Apple’s App Store may be Web apps dressed in native clothing. This is a sort of hybrid app that is written in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but is downloaded and resides on the handset and is able to tap into native functions of the phone tablet.

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