Robert Beerworth | 15/06/2012
A few years back, I had the shock of my life.
Articles suddenly started appearing in leading technology websites such as Techcrunch and Engadget lamenting the end of traditional web design and development as we know it.
All in favour of the phenomenon of apps; or in particular, mobile apps.
As a 'traditional' web designer, you can understand the shock. Family and income on the line, walking around Sydney with a sandwich board advertising cut-price websites for the few souls that had not jumped onto the app bandwidth. I'd need to go to TAFE and retrain… possibly as an app developer.
At the time - 2009 and 2010 - apps were all the rage.
Clients were demanding them. We were installing them on our iPhones at a rate of knots.
Indeed, a mobile app could bundle a far more impressive suite of graphics and functionality than a simple mobile website could possibly have hoped to back then.
Mobile apps were 'there' on the user's screen for easy access, they were fast and they were easily distributed through platforms such as iTunes and today's Google Play.
Game, Set and Match.
Which is not to say that us web developers didn't at least argue back.
We countered that mobile apps were simply the closed Internet rearing its ugly head again.
If you have been online long enough, you will recall Compuserve and AOL and even Apple World, internet-connected ecosystems that delivered proprietary experiences and content to users via their proprietary applications; these ecosystems even looked liked little world's with 'libraries' and 'play grounds' and all sorts of icons that delivered richer content, greater reliability and better functionality than the early web could.
These apps were created and prospered because the WWW experience was slow, limited and poor.
Of course, as the web became fast, expansive and good, these proprietary ecosystems fell apart.
Where they took advantage of poor Internet speeds and low quality content on the web, the web caught up.
And caught up it did.
Think tsunami, Netscape Navigator 2.0 style.
Thankfully, we're starting to reach that point with mobile apps.
The shock was short-lived; well, 3 years.
There is no question that the concept of apps has accelerated the smartphone forward, both in terms of usage and technology.
Apps can be very cool and I use a few like Tweetdeck, Shazam and the Triple JJJ app almost every day.
Mobile apps made a lot of money for Apple from their distribution and sale whilst also allowing mobile app developers such as Zynga to make plenty of money from their distribution and sale.
As we head into an era of quad-core phones and bigger memory (the latest crop of Android phones have as much graphics-processing power as the first Xbox), mobile apps - and especially games - will become better and better.
The issue for mobile apps however, is that the predominant issues they sought to address are now largely addressed by the mobile web.
Moreover, the mobile web introduces its own benefits - think its liquid nature and sheer content - that are not inherent to mobile apps.
Finally, the novelty of apps has waned for many of us and we're back into the browser on our smartphones and tablets, browsing for websites like we used to on our laptops and PCs, only a few years back.
Mobile apps solved a problem that, by-and-large, no longer needs solving.
What has changed
To be clear, there are plenty of advantages mobile apps have over mobile websites, though these no longer outweigh the advantages of mobile websites, except in a narrow number of circumstances.
The first key change and advantage to mobile websites is bandwidth: 4G.
The first iPhone was 2G. Like connecting to the Internet in 1997, 2G was unacceptable.
Sure, it was the iPhone 3G that really saw apps move, though 3G was still new, average, patchy and often unavailable and so mobile apps made sense.
Once a mobile app was downloaded, it was there forever.
I have the new 4G HTC One XL on Telstra and I did a speed test last week, peaking at 52MB.
That is basically twice as fast as you could hope to achieve on your fastest DSL 2 connection at home, and then some.
4G is a fundamental game changer.
Mobile websites are no longer at a speed disadvantage to mobile apps. The biggest disadvantage to mobile websites - bandwidth -is now its advantage.
And whilst it is true that we do sometimes go offline and especially on planes, how often does that happen. And even if a mobile phone does go offline, HTML5 - the latest technology on which mobile websites can be built - has a trick to allow it to work offline, just like an app.
Which of course leads me to the second key change driving mobile websites: HTML5.
HTML5 is not the be-all, end-all technology many paint it to be, though it does bring some new capabilities that put mobile websites on par with mobile apps.
The first is offline storage - allowing heavy images and files to be stored on the smartphone. Mobile websites can not only be downloaded like mobile apps and respond as quickly, they can even work offline.
Take that mobile app!
Hardware acceleration is the second: giving mobile websites, in theory, the same processing power as mobile apps. (I say in theory because ironically, this new capability is probably where mobile websites and mobile apps genuinely need to diverge thanks to hardware and software (security) limitations of mobile phones, though I will address that later in outlining where a mobile app remains better or even necessary over a mobile website).
It is true that currently, most examples of mobile websites do not use these additional HTML5 capabilities, though that is simply a matter of time. When they do, mobile websites will act just like mobile apps and distinguishing the two apart will be hard to do.
You mentioned advantages of mobile apps?
The fundamental advantage of a mobile app over a mobile website is that is can access the resources of the phone: such as the camera, switching between apps and using the gyroscope among other examples.
Mobile websites cannot access the camera or acceleratomoter, almost entirely for security and standards reasons.
Or at least not for the time-being. (Something I'll also address later.)
Essentially, there are physical software restrictions to what a mobile website can do and access on your mobile phone; for instance, Instagram or games needing the gyroscope could not work as a native mobile website.
For the very foreseeable future, games will remain as apps and that is one area - even with its bandwidth - that mobile websites are unlikely to better.
Other advantages exist in favour of the mobile app as well.
The first is that once downloaded, a mobile app offers a bundled and usually seamless experience; essentially, the difference in experience between Hotmail and Outlook.
Because of their head-start, mobile app developers push the boundaries much further than web developers currently do.
Theoretically, web developers can and indeed, will catch up, though apps are generally richer experiences and with all sorts of integrated sharing tool (e.g. Twitter) not as well integrated into mobile websites.
The second primary advantage of mobile apps over mobile websites - albeit provided with a caveat - is that apps are installed on the user's smartphone and so are always on hand.
In other words, while by an large you have to search for or remember a mobile website, with mobile app is installed and available with a swipe and click.
Yes in theory. Not in practice.
My wife has at least 90 apps on her iPhone.
Her habit is to quickly scroll from screen one of her iPhone to the last screen to access the latest app she has downloaded. Although all those 90 apps are on her phone (the majority of which are installed for our 4 and 1 year old boys), she hasn't really accessed them since installing them.
She might have the WebJet app installed, though if I asked her to research air fares to Auckland, chances are her instinct would drive her straight to her browser and 'search' as she has been trained to do.
Think about it. You have a few favourite, rusted on apps and the rest are irrelevant. Nice to think that they are accessible at a swipe, though the reality is that the second advantage mobile apps have over mobile websites is realistically, no advantage at all.
OK. Assuming that for most applications - such as news, classifieds and eCommerce, the mobile web has caught up - does it offer additionl advantages over mobile apps?
The first is that you develop the mobile website once and nail every smartphone. Not just iPhone or Blackberry or Windows Phone. With a mobile app, you need to build a new app for every platform and there is not a lot of effeciency in terms of code sharing.
With mobile websites, if you're clever, you can use adaptive design (aka responsive design) to kill two birds with one stone.
Design a primary website for big screens that gracefully adapts for small screens: every small screen, not just the iPhone screen your iPhone app works on.
There is a cost and time overhead to this approach, though nothing like building an app.
The second advantage to mobile websites is that they get picked up by Google.
Mobile apps do not.
And whilst it is true that with mobile apps you get access to distribution through the apps stores with their tens of millions of customers browsing for apps, this is no better than being on Google.
App stores are essentially search engines in themselves and as you would need to optimise to get to the top of Google (including having an awesome website), app stores are no different.
Thirdly, mobile apps are expensive. They can be very expensive and as much again as building your primary website.
This is not always true, though if you have a mobile app, you'll have one mobile website and one mobile app rather than a website that quite conceivably, can equally as well serve your mobile users as well.
At much less cost than a mobile app, with no trade-off and with new additional benefits not available to the mobile app.
Most importantly and fundamentally however, mobile apps miss out on the growing and natural inclination to turn back to browser.
We've done apps. They were cool, though I'd like to be back on the web now thanks.
I need news and gossip and whilst your app might deliver one of these things, I would never consider spending my life accessing content in a series of disparate applications on my laptop.
I wouldn't install 90 different applications on my laptop to access news and classifieds on an individual, app basos.
Ultimately, why would I treat my mobile or tablet differently?
You promised to address a few points?
The biggest limitation a mobile website has is that is cannot access some or all of the capabilities of a mobile phone.
Take photos on an iPhone as an example.
You simply cannot browse and upload photos from your iPhone to a mobile website.
Given how important social and sharing are to us and that many of us use our mobile phones as cameras, this is a fait accompli for mobile websites where a user needs to move photos from their phone.
The glaring limitation extends to games that rely on the user needing access to their address book. Or their camera. Or whatever it might be.
For purposes of Apple maintaining its control over and revenue from iTunes, it might well stay this way.
I suspect however, even Apple will bridge a good part of the current gap via its iCloud service by allowing mobile websites to connect to the content of a user's iPhone via what are known as APIs.
In other words, iCloud will act as the intermediary between the mobile website and the content on the user's iPhone.
Time will tell, though I can't see how Apple and others will be able to lock away the storage and hardware of mobile phones forever. People will just demand it. The security and privacy issues can be worked around.
The second point I promised to address was around hardware acceleration. This one is a bit of a dichotomy because whilst mobile websites can access hardware acceleration, the point at which they need to likely reflects the point at which mobile apps are better and more suitable.
Games are the obvious one.
Game responsiveness and gaming control does not necessarily need to be better on a mobile app, though for the foreseeable future, it will be. The infrastructure and reliable bandwidth to power serious games is just not there for mobile websites to take over.
Having said this, if you believe that Xbox games will not be cloud based in 10 years, you're probably wrong. What you see on screen whilst playing a game can just as easily come from a server in the US, just as video currently does from YouTube.
The world is going cloud and mobiles are nothing more than small computers.
Where to from here
Google's stats from a presentation last week tell it as it is.
In the presentation by Ross McDonald of Google Australia, he find that in the US, where 14% of people cited a website on a mobile as their preferred way to shop, only 4% said they preferred shopping through a mobile app.
The numbers were a bit different on the tablet where mobile apps were stronger, though still half the number of the people preferring the website on their tablet.
People overwhelmingly prefer the mobile web to mobile apps, at least in the eCommerce category.
As it is, mobile apps are still better than mobile websites in terms of the experience they deliver, though time will quickly fix this.
Like the closed Internet of 1995 however, apps have peaked.
The browser wins again.
(And best of all, I don't have to use that atrocious iTunes application on my PC to find 'new content'; I can search Google on my iPhone and have what I want, right now, in seconds…)
It's good to be a web developer again.
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