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Web or Native: Mobile Application Decisions

Posted: February 20th, 2010 | Author: Andrew Gleave | Filed under: mobile | Tags: , , | 4 Comments »

Since the debut of the iPhone in 2007, mobile computing has really taken off and we’re now at the start of a trend which will shape the future of computing, and one that will likely have a greater effect on people’s day-to-day lives than the internet experience of today.

Mobile phones have had the ability to use the internet in a primitive way for 15 years or so, but it wasn’t until Apple released the iPhone SDK in 2008 and the subsequent development frenzy that ensued, that the surge in mobile internet use really began.

Today’s smartphones transcend simply retrieving email, sending SMSs and making calls and instead enable users to transform their phone in to whatever they want: a gaming machine, a sat nav, or a sleep cycle alarm clock; all with the download of an application. This shift has fundamentally altered the way consumers think about what a phone is and how they use it, so much so, that often its function as a phone becomes secondary.

The current darling of this revolution is Apple’s iPhone which currently has about 140,000 applications on its App Store, and with over 3 billion downloads is easily the most developed marketplace for mobile applications. In fact, stats gathered at the end of 2009 showed Apple captured 99.4% of the mobile application market!

Apple aren’t the only ones driving this push in to mobile application use. Google, Nokia, Palm, RIM (with their Blackberry) and  Microsoft all have their own platform, all offering similar features, but all mostly incompatible.

So with apps being a hot (and potentially lucrative) market and a number of competing platforms to choose from, how do you go about developing and deploying mobile applications?

It boils down to two choices:

  • A native application – A native application is one which is installed and runs on the device and is developed using the device’s SDK. Native applications only run on one platform so you need to develop a different application for each platform. Once built, the app can be sold on its respective marketplace such as the App Store, Android Marketplace or Nokia’s Ovi store.
  • A mobile web app – A mobile app is a web-based application which runs in the browser of the device. There’s no special deployment necessary, it only requires a browser to use it. The goal is to build a web app which is usable by most, if not all, of the different types of device. However, in practice this isn’t particularity easy – yet.

Actually, if you just require a mobile version of your site, you have the option of doing nothing and hoping that your site is useable enough as it is for users browsing on their mobile device. This depends on how your site was built and the browser which is being used, so there could be a large number of users who may get a less than ideal experience.

Both web and native apps have their pros and cons and the choice often comes down to what you want the app to do, and what your users will expect.

Going Native

The Apple's App Store and Google's Android Marketplace are two of a number of outlets for native applications

Developing a native application will provide benefits in its performance and tight integration with all the device’s features and APIs. A native application will give your users the best experience by taking full advantage of the full capabilities of the device.

Advantages like :

  • They can use all of the device’s features such as its camera, GPS, compass, file system etc.
  • They can be sold through a marketplace such as the App Store or Android Marketplace
  • They have superior performance compared with a typical web app
  • Don’t necessarily need to be connected to a 3G or WiFi network to function *
  • They’re not running in a browser so there’s no restriction on the types of application that can be developed

*Improvements brought in with HTML5 will help web apps in some respect

Because a native app isn’t restricted to running in a browser they can do some pretty intensive things such as an augmented reality app to show you a data overlay on top of live video or full full 3D games. Neither of which would currently be possible with a web app.

But there are downsides, too:

  • Typically higher development cost and longer lead time.
  • Very little portability across platform – if you want your app to run on both the iPhone and Android it means building two separate versions.

So if you want to do anything that takes full advantage of a device’s capabilities, or do anything custom or unique, you’re likely looking at a native app. However, the issue of building and deploying to many different devices mean the overall cost can be high.

And this is where web-apps can really start to look like a great alternative: A web-based app should be able to run on any device with a browser, right?

Well, sort of.

The Mobile Web

Everything which you interact with on the internet (except the most basic of web pages) is a web app in one form or another: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, your favourite blog – all in a broad sense are web apps.

The major advantage of web apps are that they can be used wherever you are, from any computer, via almost any browser. No downloading, no software updates and no uninstalling – just open a browser window, type the URL and hit Enter. Add that to fact that all devices have a web browser means that you have a potentially large number of users who are already familiar with how to get to and use your app.

However web development for mobile devices is still developing and it can be difficult to do things which would be straightforward in a native application. John Gruber has a great article on building iPhone Web Apps as an Alternative to the App Store which covers the topic nicely.

Even though currently it’s not possible to build a web app that will do everything a native app does, for some situations a mobile app is perfect. There’s some great work going in with jQTouch which is a tool that makes it easier to build  mobile web apps for both the iPhone and Android, that look and feel more like a native application. There’s also PhoneGap, which enables a web app to be packaged up and deployed as a native application for the iPhone, Blackberry and Android and sold on their respective marketplace / store.

With these types of tools emerging, and the devices themselves becoming more powerful, it’s not long before web apps become the choice for a larger proportion of mobile applications. The fact that Apple (iPhone), Google (Android), Palm (Pre), Nokia and just announced RIM (Blackberry) are all backing the open source WebKit engine to power their web browsers, it’s a major step in getting a consistent experience across multiple devices. Knowing that an app will look and perform the same manner on all these devices is the Holy Grail of web development: write once, run anywhere.

The Webkit browser engine which powers a lot of modern smartphone browsers

Add to this HTML5 and the rapid development of browser technology and we’re closely approaching the point where we can use standard web technologies to build advanced mobile applications. In the next couple of years most, if not all, mobile platforms will have support for the following advanced features all of which will drasticly change both what web apps are capable of and what users will expect from them:

  • Pure web-based 3D graphics via WebGL – enabling 3D games and modelling
  • Standardised 2D graphics and animation – slick animation and graphics are trademarks of native applications’ rich interfaces
  • Standardised video and audio support – no more plugins to watch movies or listen to streaming music
  • Communication improvements
  • Geolocation support – enable the browser to access your location
  • Local storage and SQL databases – meaning data can be stored within the web application itself so you don’t always require an internet connection to use it. Google Apps provide this features already using Google Gears.
  • Manifests and offline resource caching – movies and photos are still accessible even if you go offline

The future is looking bright for mobile web app development, and as the tools and browser technology get better, development will shift from native to web-based applications. The overall trend is that the “Internet is the platform” that all applications rely on – and not just the mobile ones.

“…development for a platform is a distraction. It’s taking our eyes off the ball, and ignoring the bigger shift that’s happening beneath our feet.”

Chris MessinaReferring to the fact that we should be developing for the web rather than for a single platform.

These types of device and the market for mobile applications in general is still young and it’s going to take a while for the game to play out. Native mobile applications, with their superior performance, slickness and better capabilities are going to be the choice for demanding or cutting edge applications – at least for the forseable future – but one thing you can bank on is that the web isn’t going anywhere. The web is the inevitable platform, and that means that we’ll see huge growth in web-based apps in the coming years.

Andrew Gleave is the lead developer of iPhone and mobile apps at Red Robot Studios. Considering developing a mobile app? Contact Red Robot Studios to see how we can help.