Mobile Apps: In the Store or the Browser?

by Luke Wroblewski July 16, 2009

With recent announcements that Verizon and Symbian are both jumping into the app store fray, the number of mobile application development options for software providers begins to looks unmanageable. Consider the list so far:

So it's not surprise that software makers are looking toward applications that run in mobile Web browsers. Web applications are classic solution to reach. Write once and run anywhere there is a browser. Which today, is the majority of networked phones. Yet the classic tension of rich vs. reach that exists in Web browsers on the desktop also holds on mobile devices.

As pointed out in Web Application Solutions: A Designer's Guide (PDF):

The primary benefits of a thin client are reach (anyone with a Web browser can use it) and deployment (can be updated and distributed through a Web server). The primary disadvantages are limited interaction options and typically slower response times. state management, and script execution (run-time). Rich Clients leverage local processing to enable rich interactions and can utilize Web Services to connect to distributed data sources and auto-update. Unlike Thin Client applications, Rich Clients can be used offline and more easily integrate with local hardware and software.

On most mobile devices, key operating system capabilities are not available to the Web browser. Yet. But a gradual shift is underway:

  • Nokia recently released a beta of Nokia Platform Services 2.0, which provides a JavaScript API that enables widgets to access device data and information, such as contact records, the device's camera, and location information.
  • Apple's Mobile Safari browser now includes a Javascript API to the iPhone’s location functions. This means a web app can have access to a user's coordinates which were previously only available to native iPhone apps.
  • Apple also provides JavaScript multi-touch event support in the Safari browser on the iPhone so now you can create web applications that utilize gestures like pinch, flick, etc.

Of course, Web companies like Google believe all mobile apps will run in the browser.

"We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing" said Vic Gundotra, Google Engineering vice president. Michael Abbott, head of application software for Palm, said advances in the browser being introduced through HTML5 standards meant that web applications could tap features of particular phones such as their accelerometers. Mr Gundotra said even Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, had said “Build for the web,” when the iPhone was launched, but the idea had met with resistance from developers at the time. The timing was not right, he suggested, but “the rate of innovation in the browser [over the past 12 months] is surprising.”

Hopefully the transition happens faster in mobile browsers than it has in browsers on the desktop.