I’ve gotta say, I hope not.
With the opening of the Chrome Web Store a few days ago, I would figure that your average developer, as well as product managers and CEOs are starting to get app fatigue. IPhone, Android, Windows Mobile 7, Blackberry… Now we need to repurpose apps to take advantage of Chrome and Chromium? It’s enough to make you miss the good old days of.. ohhhhh… 2007, when all you needed to worry about was whether the advanced features of your web apps worked for users still using Internet Explorer. And you still need to worry about that for your plain old web site.
I just don’t think this can last. Or maybe it can, but it shouldn’t. In a way, the Chrome Store shows a possible future. Really, the apps are nothing more than bookmarks to web apps that take advantage of advanced HTML5 capabilities in layout, animation and perhaps most importantly, local storage. There’s no saying you need to use Chrome for these apps. Visiting the New York Times for Chrome app in Firefox seems to work fine. The only difference being the prompt on the top to allow it to store local files.
Same goes for the iPhone. Well, it doesn’t really work there, as it’s optimized for larger screens, but that could be fixed, or it could render differently based on dynamic detection. It does ask to store a database of 10MB locally though.
Recently, I met with someone who was running a shop pitching custom mobile apps to financial institutions and getting some traction. Typical apps were being pitched in packages containing development for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. I might not be a developer, but you don’t have to be to see the problems with this. Three different platforms are going to have 3 different capabilities. Taking advantage of the unique nature of each platform requires different specs. Reducing the app to the lowest common denominator of the platforms lessens the user experience. The developer is expected to support 3 different codebases, which despite their best efforts, they will usually do a less than stellar job of. And the client is expected to pay for 3 different products, which essentially do the same thing. Why bother?
I get the appeal of a native app. The processing power of a host machine, be it a big gaming rig or a tiny smartphone, is always going to be more capable of doing cool stuff than a pure web app. But at what cost? Multiple codebases, multiple platforms, confusion, mediocre products, pissed off users? Google seems to already have taken a stance on this (sort of). By design (likely) or by omission, Google has not developed a native Gmail app despite what must be millions of requests for it by now. Why? The HTML5 mobile app they’ve developed is good enough. It’s actually great. I prefer it to the native Mail app because I use Gmail as my main mail client anyway, and it offers a tighter integration to Gmail’s searching, archiving and other management. Google’s done this with most of their web apps, despite the fact that some of them (Google Reader for the iPad comes to mind) seem to really lend themselves to a native treatment. HTML5 and maybe some platform specific tweaking gives a consistent experience across all platforms: Web, Desktop, Mobile, Tablet.. Whatever.
A recent post over at Netflix details how the company is utilizing this strategy for its native clients. Recently, Netflix for the PS3 went from requiring a standalone disc to a native app written entirely in HTML5. Furthermore HTML5 is being used to create user experiences for the iPhone, iPad and Android. Another advantage is what server delivered HTML5 allows for in terms of testing and rapid development and deployment. According to John Ciancutti, VP of Personalization Technology at Netflix:
The technology is delivered from Netflix servers every time you launch our application. This means we can constantly update, test and improve the experience we offer. We’ve already run several experiments on the PS3, for example, and we’re working hard on more as I write this. Our customers don’t have to go through a manual process to install new software every time we make a change, it “just happens.”
Seems like a sound strategy, especially since it seems we are looking at several more platforms to support in the future.