Web Apps vs. Native Apps

On July 4, 2008

One of the open questions with regard to next week’s launch of iPhone Firmware 2.0 and the Apps Store is the impact native apps that do not require jailbreaking will have on the future development of web-based applications.

As I noted in an earlier post here, since I don;t use them, I personally care little if next week means the demise of apps delivered via installer.app. I care very much, however, if it means a slowdown in the future development of web-based application. The problem is, I don’t think people fully understand web apps or their import as partners to native apps rather than replacements. Until we stop viewing them as an “either/or” option we will continue to sell both short. 

Take this comment from TUAW in response to Google releasing a web-based iPhone optimized version of Google Talk. They note–

You won’t have to wait for the App Store to use it, since this is a web app designed for the iPhone‘s browser (remember when Apple wanted us to believe that web apps were just as good as fully native apps? My how times have changed)              (emphasis added)

Statements such as this suggest that Web-based Apps are the poor younger cousin of native apps, the consolation prize, the guy/gal you invite to the prom because the people you REALLY want to go with you say "no". This is the wrong way to view it.


The right way is to understand that, now that there will be a choice, there will be some functions and tasks that are better suited to native apps and some that will be better suited to web apps. It is similar to what it taking place in the traditional desktop and notebook computing world in which native and web applications are evolving in parallel.

In the final analysis the best option are the applications that I am increasingly referring to as “hybrid apps”- that is, those applications that are web based but also have a native version for those times when a data connection is not possible.

One of my current favorite programs, Evernote, offers both a superb web-based interface AND a desktop version of the software. The two are kept in constant sync so that the note stored on a device are the same as the ones store in “the cloud”. There are times when the desktop version is preferable to the web version, but there are also times when the web version comes in handy. At the moment the only option when using the iPhone with Evernote is the optimized web portal but hopefully there will soon be a native version, as well.

An even more familiar example of this is Gmail. Gmail is a powerful web-based email service. With any browser and an internet connection you can access your email regardless of your location. However, you can also set up Mac OS X’s Mail to work with Gmail so that during those times when a data connection is not available you cans still access your email.

It is like the approach Apple themselves is taking with the soon-to-be-released .Mac replacement. Me.com will offer a web based email, address book, calendar that is fully integrated with the resident versions of the same programs that are part of every copy of OS X. The idea isn’t to use EITHER the web-based OR the Native versions. The idea is that there will be times when one is preferable over the other.  Having both provides the flexibility to choose the one better suited for the moment.

It is time we recognized that next week’s release of native applications isn’t there to replace the web apps we have grown to know (and either love or hate) but rather, they are there to work in conjunction WITH the web apps and together make the device all the more powerful.

Which brings us back to the awesome web-interface Google just release for GoogleTalk and the iPhone. Unlike Gmail and Evernote, for which off-line access can be important, the only time Google Talk (or Twitter, IM etc) is at all useful is when a data connection is available. Therefore having a native version doesn’t buy you anything meaningful.

I’ll keep my web-based GoogleTalk but, hey Google, if you could give me a native version of Google Docs that allows me to store AND edit my docs on the device, I would be most appreciative.