Want to See the Future of Mobile Web Apps? Just Watch Google

Google improved the web version of its Gmail application for Apple iPhone and iPod touch devices running iOS 4, further blending the lines between web and native applications yesterday. Faster scrolling and a revamped toolbar that always appears at the top of the page are part of the changes, both of which bring a better user experience to smartphone owners. With the web-based mobile version of Gmail, Google is leading the way when it comes to showing off a future of feature-rich web apps.

Although I’m an Android (s goog) user by day, not to mention a long-time Gmail addict, I keep an iPod (s aapl) touch around for app testing. So after I saw the update, I hit up the Gmail web page on my iPod’s browser and the experience is noticeably better. Perhaps I’m jaded because I use two Gmail accounts all day long in a desktop web browser, so I’m already used to what some consider to be a watered down experience.

But if I were to show Gmail in mobile Safari to the average person, I’m certain that a few would think it was a web app running in a browser — and not just from the improved look. The faster scrolling is exactly what you’d expect in a standard client app, and the stationary toolbar adds another level of polish to the view. Heck, if I could just get email notifications on my home screen from the web app like I can with the pre-installed Gmail app on my handset, I’d consider abandoning the Gmail software that I have to keep updating through the Android Market with every new release.

The secret sauce for the enhancements are improved techniques with JavaScript and HTML standards, with the latter constantly improving as HTML5 continues to evolve and gain acceptance. There’s no doubt we’re currently watching the rise of the app economy with billions of apps downloaded to mobiles over the past several years, but to ignore a future with robust web apps that require no download and run in a browser would be shortsighted due to some key advantages web apps bring.

Developers can deploy one app across multiple platforms, for example. There’s no need to write different code for iOS, Android, BlackBerry (s rimm) and WebOS (s hpq) when much the same code can be used in the browsers of each platform. Functional and user-interface improvements can be applied centrally for all users, which is precisely what Google is doing with Gmail on the web. And offline functionality combined with local data caching could possibly reduce mobile broadband usage. For these reasons, I asked developers if they’re ready for HTML5 in a GigaOM Pro piece (subscription required) earlier this month. Programmers can try to keep up with multiple mobile app stores and handset platforms, but the handwriting is on the wall if you watch Google: web apps can offer serious advantages to coders because of the write-once, deploy-everywhere elements while still providing a positive user experience.

The future doesn’t have to be an either/or situation though: startups like Sproutit see a blended approach. Creating an app using HTML5 standards and wrapping native code around it kills two birds with one stone: web users get the same look, feel and experience that native app users enjoy. Apply that thought to Gmail and one can imagine no difference between a native Gmail client or the web version. Indeed, the native Gmail app I use on my Android handset resembles the mobile web version already. That’s no coincidence, as Google is fully embracing a future of web apps and mobility across multiple devices.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d):