Are Web Apps The Future For Mobile Devices?

I believe they are.  If you own a mobile device such as a smartphone or a tablet computer then it’s probably easy to agree that the apps are a very large part of the device.  And while the app stores continue to get more crowded and the mobile device wars heat up, there is something else going on that may just change all this.  Web apps.  Here’s why they may be a smarter approach for those using them and the companies making them.

The Rise Of The Web Apps

web apps vs native apps

Today I got word that one of my favorite companies in the world, 37Signals, had just released an app for one of their flagship products, Basecamp.  If you go looking in the iTunes App Store you wont’ see their app.  If you look anywhere in the Android App Market you won’t find their app there either.  So where is it?

It’s on the web.  It’s a web app.  And that makes a huge difference.  Here’s why.

You see, when 37Signals set out to make an app for Basecamp they actually started by putting up a job ad for an iOS developer.  Here’s what they say,

We had decided to dive into native apps for the iPhone. We contracted out the back-end development of our iPhone app for Highrise. The project went well, but we felt like we had to have someone in-house to continue the development of the Highrise app and future apps we wanted to build.

It was at this time that Android started to really take off and of course their customers who had Android devices started to ask when they would have a version for them.  It was clear to 37Signals that they would now have to hire an Android developer as well or ignore this huge customer base.  This didn’t bode well for them since they are fanatical about customer support and don’t really approach things with a heavy eye on “specialization”.

So they came to a conclusion that I think many companies are going to start considering:  build an app that can run on just about every popular smartphone platform (at least those that support WebKit-based browsers).

This is a win-win situation that I feel is significant right now.  Why build for one specific platform, on one specific device, and nearly lose control of the distribution and 1:1 personal experience that defines mobile computing?

As it turns out, by developing a web app, 37Signals can now support  the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad, Motorola Droid X, Motorola Droid 2, Samsung Galaxy S, HTC Incredible, HTC Evo, Palm Pre 2, BlackBerry Torch, or any other device running iOS 4+, Android 2.1+, webOS 2, or BlackBerry 6.  How cool is that?  One app, multiple devices, and total control over distribution.

Want another example?  Take the new startup OnSwipe who are building their web app-based platform for “insanely easy tablet publishing”.  These guys are going to push the boundaries even farther by offering up a way to have an “app like” experience without the need to be tied to a specific platform or have specialized developers for each type of mobile technology.

What Are Web Apps?

Just to back up a bit, web apps are built using web-based technologies that take advantage of something called WebKit.  WebKit is a way for the browser to identify your device and work just like a native app – taking advantage of multitouch and all of the other great things mobile devices can do.  It’s like an app that lives on the web instead of on your device.

The advantage is that you could be using Android, or iOS or BlackBerry OS and still use the app.  It’s a win for you and it’s a win for the company developing it as they can support all their mobile users.

Mobile computing is largely a very personal experience and web apps make it a lot easier for companies to deliver that experience.

Wanna see some in practice?  Just go to http://www.apple.com/webapps or browse to http://basecamphq.com

Show Me The Money

You are probably thinking the following, “Great, but how do I sell these apps”?  You don’t need to.  But you could.  Ever heard of the growing popularity of the freemium model?  This is a model in which you gain access to the app for free but to use all the features there is an in-app purchase required.  I imagine the same thing could be done with web apps using the likes of PayPal or other payment technologies baked into the app.

Additionally, if you did not want to go the freemium route, you could always just charge to access the web app itself.  If there is a way, technology will find it.

Oh and you don’t need to give 30% of that app revenue away either.

Are Web Apps A Smarter Approach For Mobile Devices?

So the question is, are web apps a smarter approach for mobile devices?

Yes.

I stand behind web apps.  I realize there are going to be inherent limitations with them but look at the advantages:

  • Generally platform-independent
  • Can serve multiple users
  • Full control over the pricing, distribution and content
  • Easier to maintain and sustainable

The downsides?

  • Requires knowledge of building and maintaining web apps
  • Need a place to store the infrastructure and have 24/7 up-time

There could be more pros and cons but I suspect that we are going to see more web apps in our future and if you are a business trying to deliver an app for all your mobile users then you should consider going this route in order to capture not just iOS users but Android and BlackBerry users as well.   Additionally, you maintain control and the ability to customize the 1:1 personal computing experience that defines mobile device experiences.

Originally posted 2011-02-01 15:33:06.

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