Mobilize 2010: Native Mobile Apps Will Be With Us For Some Time

In a death match between native and mobile web apps, which one walks away the victor?

That was the heavily paraphrased question posed at the Mobilize conference today. While a panel of experts did its best to weigh in on the provocative discussion, the less sensational answer is that there’s room for both. Native apps will continue to have the edge for many scenarios but web-based browser apps are increasingly having their say too.

Michael Mullany, vice president of products and marketing for Sencha, which provides tools for app development, said enterprise apps may only be with us for 2 1/2 more years as companies look to maximize cost efficiency and decrease support costs. But he said more consumer-focused apps, well those could take a while longer to go away.

“Because of consumer-branded products that care about the best performance and polish, particularly games and performance applications, you’ll see them hold on longer,” he said.

[inline-pro-content]Adam Blum, CEO of Rhomobile, which also provides app development tools, said web apps are generally more popular as a new device hits the market because they allow developers to target it more easily. But as a certain platform gains momentum, it encourages more native application development. He said as devices continue to grow in capabilities with better processors and hardware features, it’s challenging for web app developers to tap into all of those advances as they wait for standards bodies to formalize the access to them.

In fact, many apps that that could reasonably be rendered as web apps are still being built natively by developers because they are better able to take advantage of the increasing power of devices.

“As (these devices) get more powerful, that power won’t lie fallow,” he said.

Ilja Laurs, founder and CEO of app store GetJar said web apps are appropriate for certain use cases where users are entering in simple information or browsing data. But he said browsers are not capable of handling some larger apps that require a lot of data transfers.  He said large games up to 500 megabytes are too sizable for a mobile browser to handle every time.

Jay Sullivan, vice president of products for Mozilla conceded there are some advantages with native apps. But he said browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox are increasingly getting access to control hardware components like GPS and cameras, making a wealth of apps possible through a browser.

Sullivan said the web has always been underestimated but continues to deliver up things like rich video and graphics. He also dismissed concerns that slow standards ratification keeps web app developers at a serious disadvantage.

“We don’t wait for ratification, we develop and talk to each other and then release stuff,” he said. “It’s a little more agile than I’m hearing,” here.

But native apps continue to enjoy an edge, in part because they have better distribution channels though established app stores and don’t rely on networks, said Krishna Vedati, senior vice president and GM of mobile for AT&T Interactive.

“The Web will evolve over time but today when you write a web app, the time to launch the app and the network comes into play,” Vedati said. “If it takes 8 seconds, people don’t want to use it.”