Web vs Apps: The Battle Rages On

Cloud-computing-conceptIn 2005 things seemed clear. The Web was the undisputed king, and with the advent of AJAX and modern CSS, future software was going to be written for the browser.

A year earlier, Joel Spolsky, who had helped create Visual Basic and was a project manager for Excel, had written an article saying that Microsoft had lost the API war, and that the Web makes the operating system irrelevant.

Then, of course, the iPhone happened.

In the beginning it wasn’t much of a threat to the web. On the contrary; it lacked support for a native apps API, and developers were advised to create web apps for it. But a year later Apple came out with the iOS SDK and store, and the first Android phone was released, along with its own SDK.

Developers went nuts writing native (that is, non web) apps, and in a few years there were half a million applications for the iPhone alone (nowadays there are over a million).

The iTunes store proved to be a multi-billion market, and the Android store, albeit with a slow start, followed on.

To some, this explosion of native apps was just a fad. The web is open, standard, accessible to all, etc, was their reasoning, so it will sure win, like the PC and Windows won over Apple in the eighties and nineties.

They were neglecting a few crucial details: Apple came back in the noughties (00’s), took over all the profits from personal computing and left the commoditized PC market in crumbles (see IBM selling to Lenovo, Dell getting irrelevant, HP leaving the PC business, etc).

So the “open PC” wining over the “closed Mac” story of the nineties is now the inverse of how things finally turned out.

The other thing is that since the time the web triumph was ascertained, mobile happened. And the web is, well, not as good in mobile.

Using JS for CPU intensive tasks eats into the battery like there’s no tomorrow. All kinds of built in phone features and sensors lack a web accessible API.

And some things, like video, image and audio editing (which is something lots of apps have to do under the hood) takes ages or is impossible to do within a web app, especially with all the constraints mobile browsers impose.

Plus touch interactions are just more fluent and fast on a native app. And you can also use them when there’s no good coverage, or even no coverage at all.

Now, if you think that all those will be overcome soon, as mobile devices get more powerful, with larger memories and faster CPUs, think again.

The trend might in fact be the exact opposite, as wearables, like the iWatch and similar offerings from Google, Samsung, Peeble etc, come into the market, with even smaller CPUs and less battery capacity.

So, is the web doomed? Well, not necessarily.

For one, we might use mobile devices more, and use them throughout the day, but in the end of the day (pun intended) it’s the desktop (which nowadays pretty much means the laptop, but I digress) where we do our important and productive work.

A phone, a tablet, or a wearable watch, is not exactly were we prefer to edit documents, organize files, and do our business. And in the desktop computer, the web shines, and browsers are on par with most native apps.

Second, the web is not just HTML.

Or, to be more precise, what we most like about the web it’s not the exchange of html documents, but the ability to connect to external services easily and without having to manage our computer and programs or care about viruses and crashes.

Modern mobile apps offer that too.

They are essentially clients for web services (e.g the Facebook and Messages app for Facebook, the Google Maps app for Google Maps, etc). The fact that they use native code instead of html doesn’t make them less capable; in fact it makes them faster and slicker.

And as for the headache of managing our computer, modern apps make this a thing of the past.

They install with one click, uninstall just as easy, and save our data in the cloud for easy sync. You don’t have to play the “admin” for your iOS or Android device.

Third, even on mobile, some things work better as web apps. Newspapers and news sites for example are better accessed from the mobile browser compared to installing myriads of different native app clients for NYT, Guardian and the tons of other sites.

Apps heavy on collaboration, where users spend most of their time in the web interface at home, also qualify for this (this is were most LMS platforms fit in, as the extra real estate a laptop affords makes it much easier to work and study using them compared to a mobile device).

Mobile learning, save for specialized methods like flash cards, is nicely served by web apps. Having the same exact experience you have where you most use the app is preferable to having to learn two different interfaces.

And of course responsive web design makes fitting into the different screen sizes even easier.

So who’s gonna win? For the short to medium term, we bet on both. Mobile isn’t going away and isn’t a fad, and the web is not going away either. So hedge your bets ladies and gentlemen, and grab the popcorn.

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