On Native and Web Apps in Mobile

July 13, 2011 Boris Chan

At Xtreme Labs, we’ve developed and built some very exciting apps and we have seen the evolution of the web-enabled mobile application since the birth of the App Store. Here’s some of our thoughts on the state of native and web apps in mobile.

What Users Really Want: Web-Enabled Applications That Work

Native apps and web apps have much in common in their usefulness to a smartphone owner. The most interesting apps require access to the web, access to a user’s location and their social graph. These apps have only become possible in the recent years, due to the convergence of smartphones as: the personal computer, the hub through which sharing occurs on social networks [1] and the beacon through which we can locate ourselves in the world. For a certain class of applications, it is now possible to provide a good experience and access to the core features that users need through web applications. It is exciting to see the myriad of boundary-pushing news sites and web apps from companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google [2]. However, there are whole classes of apps that require a native strategy to work if they require access to frameworks for features that are unavailable otherwise. Google+ on iOS through Safari is a wonderful experience, but it still doesn’t allow you to post photos. Still, the web app and the native app both deliver on a core experience that users are looking for, despite the feature gap that exists sometimes. [3]

The Native Experience

The experience that has turned apps into the selling point of smartphones comes from immersive design that transforms your device into a swiss army knife of wonders— this is the promise of apps. It’s the ability to create those magical experiences where your phone can help you find your favourite restaurant, act as your multitrack recording studio, or serve as your pocket game device all at the same time. All of this is made possible through great development platforms and tools that gives developers access to innovative hardware features and software frameworks. That’s what makes it possible to do anything from music software to game development. Developers often lament that these APIs are only on Native frameworks. [4]

HTML5 vs. Native Development: Platforms and Skill Sets Required, Distribution and Monetization Strategies

Platforms and Skill Sets

The breadth of languages and frameworks that mobile application developers need to create apps is staggering and the skills required are vastly different. This is especially true on native development, where in order to create an application on multiple platforms, a company could require developers with knowledge and experience on many different languages and development methods. As a result, maintaining codebases for multiple platforms is a challenge that small companies often do not want to tackle due to the need to maintain a lean engineering team. However, it is still nascent stage for mobile web development tools, despite the proliferation of great web frameworks. [5]

Distribution and Monetization

The App Store just announced the download of 15 billion apps. While the growth of Android is amazing at over 500,000 activations per day, its adoption of Android market is less impressive [6]. Regardless, this amount of growth and adoption from smartphone users has created an ecosystem where developers can monetize their applications very effectively. A platform’s app store provides a distribution channel that reaches the entire userbase and developers are given a myriad of new ways to acquire users and monetize. A greater concern is when owners of the platform copies your feature set and integrates it as part of the core operating system. Instapaper, a reading app that has been very popular on iOS, has been successful enough for Marco Arment to build an amazing experience around it, but even he is rethinking his strategy long-term despite his optimism from Apple creating a very similar feature integrated into Safari [7]. Certain platforms, like iOS, can have lengthy submission processes for applications, which can stall deployment and time-to-market. [8]

Future Trends

Native apps are still where the strongest experiences are, but hybrid applications are helping to bridge the gap between strong device integration and rapid iteration. The App Store on iOS uses web views embedded inside a native application, but provides a native experience for downloading and updating applications on iOS [9]. It is common to see a multi-pronged approach where a service has a website, mobile web app, and a native app to provide deeper experiences at each layer [10]. Beyond looking at a single app, the next wave of amazing mobile apps could be connected and enabled to create an integrated experience that avoids the silo effect that exists right now. Fred Wilson opines for in his blog post on The Always Logged In Experience. [11]

Boris Chan is a Principal at Xtreme Labs. He tweets as @borisc and you can reach him at boris@xtremelabs.com

Footnotes

 

  1. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook users are sharing 4 billion things a day.
  2. Check out the web app made by Financial Times. It attempts to provide an app experience through the web browser. The Facebook, Twitter and Google+ mobile web apps all attempt to provide an app experience.
  3. Which is why Google is still releasing an iOS app, they need to let iOS users post photos and get push notifications like on Android.
  4. Joe Hewitt, of Facebook and Firebug-fame, is spending and dedicating his energies to bringing new tools to development in the era of mobile apps. Even he makes the analogy to trying to “squeeze blood out of the HTML stone” while Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM all are in an arms race to bring new tools and frameworks that ease development on their native platforms.
  5. This ACM article written by the guys at Nitobi is an interesting read on the gaps between native and web platforms. There are a host of great web frameworks that ease the development of web apps and integration to existing web services, but this is still hard. The good thing is that we’re trending towards a period of consolidation of platforms, as the market is beginning to mature.
  6. Here’s Apple’s PR release on topping 15 billion app downloads, Andy Rubin on Android daily activations. While some developers like Rovio have figured out how to monetize through ads without driving revenue from app payments in Android Market, issues with fragmentation and payments is still being worked out.
  7. Marco Arment discusses this in a much more elegant way than I could.
  8. To be fair to Apple, there is a much better set of documentation and more visibility into the submission process these days.
  9. The line between web apps, hybrid apps and native apps are getting more and more blurred as companies like Apple are deploying web approaches where it makes the most sense, and native approaches where it gets better experiences.
  10. Tim Bray’s article on “Web” vs. “Native” and his breakdown of TripIt is a great read for this.
  11. StartupNorth prudently points out Kik’s announcement in relation to Fred Wilson’s article on mobile “glue”.

 

 

 

 

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