Native mobile app losing ground thanks to the web app

App Stores are doing well. Apple is earning decent money by providing it. But for how long? An increasing amount of publishers complains about the costly investment to support an increasing amount of mobile platforms. They prefer to move away from it. And why not? HTML5 has arrived and it proves to do well. Today’s launch of the Financial Times web app for iPhone and iPad clearly shows the potential of web apps.

What is a native mobile app and what a mobile web app?

I can imagine you won’t directly realize the difference between a native mobile app and a mobile web app. Simply stated a native app is an application developed dedicated for one mobile operating system like iOS (iPhone/iPad), Android, Windows Phone 7 or BlackBerry. Every platform needs its own app.

A web app is a web site especially designed for mobile. Depending on your mobile phone the website will present itself in the best matching way. Thanks to HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript (especially with frameworks like jQuery Mobile and Sencha Touch) such mobile “websites” can become very powerful and they can almost look like a native app.

With few exceptions, most native apps could be written as web apps and provide a relatively similar experience. (Source: iPadCTO.com)

What to choose for? Either native or web?

Thanks to Apple’s iOS SDK, the development toolkit for iPhone app developers, the development of native iPhone apps has become very popular. For a developer it’s rather easy to upload an app to the App Store. Without too much problems he can earn decent money in case his app becomes popular.

But for a publisher the situation might be different. They want to target a bigger audience than Apple users only.

In such a case they could choose to develop multiple native apps, but this is rather costly. With the current technology (HTML5, CSS3, Javascript) in place a web app is in many cases a perfect alternative. A big advantage of the web app is the fact that they can easily increase functionality and they are able to implement their own payment models. At the moment a native app user will have to update the app through the app store (this will change on the iPhone with the introduction of iOS 5) to get the new features. The publisher has to stick to the payment regulations of the app store. It is known that many publishers are not that happy with Apple’s restrictive subscription model.

For business applications a web app seems to do even better than native apps as stated by Hutch Carpenter. More about that in a future post.

The diagram below shows what benefits both alternatives offer.

Picture source: iPadCTO.com

Almost every native app could be replaced by a web app

Fortunately, an increasing amount of mobile browsers supports HTML5 which enables an app experience on a mobile web page. It’s true it’s still not possible to get access to several phone API’s like the camera, GPS/maps, etc. But these limitations are supposed to disappear in the near time.

Let’s just have a look at the Financial Times App which has been released today. At the moment it is available for iPhone and iPad only, but we presume other platforms will be added soon. Go to http://app.ft.com on your iPad or iPhone and the magic will unfold. In several steps it’s just like you are using a native app.

1. Bookmark the application

The first advice you get is to bookmark the application. By adding it to your Home Screen a FT icon will appear on your iPhone/iPad, just like you are used to have with a native app.

2. Click the icon to start the FT Web App

Loading the app takes a little while. All the available content needs to be downloaded to your iPhone/iPad. Before publishers had to use the limited browser cache to make content available for offline viewing. With HTML5 it’s possible to create a local storage with a client side database.

3. A local storage database will be created

The FT Web App will ask you for permission to create a local database up to 50 MB of storage. Once this database has been created all recent articles will be stored to the database. When you launch the app again, the content database will be synchronized with the online available content. By pressing the refresh button you can synchronize as well.

This local storage enables you to read downloaded content also when you are offline. The web app is having some hick ups in offline mode, especially when turning from landscape to portrait and back and when clicking a new article. It’s obvious some processing takes place at that moment.

4. The design is page width sensitive

The real power of HTML5 in combination with CSS are fluid designs. It’s possible to present content screen width dependent. The same application will present itself completely different on an iPhone or iPad, in portrait or landscape mode.

5. Registration for more content needed

Without a user account you will have limited access to their content. Fortunately, registration is free which will provide you with daily access to great content. In case you want more, you can subscribe for their paid full online version. During the FT Web App launch period you will have free unlimited access to all articles after registration.

More and more web applications will appear

In this post we focused on the FT Web App only, but for sure it’s not the only example. Another great example is the Twitter Web App for iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android smartphones. In my home country, The Netherlands, the Dutch public news station NOS has just released a nice web app: http://m.nos.nl. We are convinced many others will follow soon.

We are curious about your opinion regarding the web app trend. What do you prefer? Native or web? Feel free to share your opinion below.

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Aspire Blog Team

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