Why “Web vs. Native” Isn’t a Black-and-White Battle

Even before the iPhone (s AAPL) gave mobile data a much-needed kick in the pants, mobile developers were debating the merits of native applications compared to Web-based offerings. But in recent weeks the discussion has begun to sound like a cutthroat Darwinian test of survival rather than a geeky topic of development strategy. Mobiledia this week asked if native apps are “an endangered species,” while MIT’s Technology Review went a step further in examining “why mobile apps will soon be dead.”
The rationale is that HTML5 and other Web-based technologies will soon give developers the tools they need to finally deliver an immersive experience to a massive audience across a wide variety of phones and operating systems. The biggest problem, though, is that those tools aren’t close to being ready. The HTML5 draft specification, for example, was moved to Last Call status only a few days ago and isn’t expected to be completed until 2014. So the reality of the situation is much more complicated than the black-and-white headlines of one technology “killing” another.
Over the next several years, both Web and native apps will evolve alongside each other, and savvy developers will choose the best technology — or combination of technologies — for their specific purposes. Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ), for instance, is raising eyebrows with this week’s claim that it will dethrone the iPad with its upcoming TouchPad; the device runs Palm’s webOS, an operating system that developers are finding increasingly attractive thanks in part to HP’s Enyo framework, which enables developers to build a single app that works effectively across webOS phones and tablets as well as in a computer browser.
Meanwhile, hybrid apps — which couple the broad support of Web-based apps with the richer features of downloadable offerings — are also gaining traction among the developer community. Real-world examples include Facebook; GeoCongress, which tells users who their elected officials are based on location; and the productivity app Clarizen. And unlike purely Web-based applications, hybrids can take advantage of distribution channels such as Apple’s App Store and Google’s(s goog) Android Market — which is a big plus for smaller developers who face an enormous task in drawing traffic to their Web sites.
The challenge for developers, publishers and product strategists lies in striking a balance between the two technologies to create high-performance apps that are available to the biggest possible audience. Most will have to find some middle ground between the lowest common denominator and a jaw-dropping user experience. Even if it makes for less inflammatory headlines.
For more thoughts on the great mobile app debate, please see my weekly column at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).
Image courtesy Flickr user -miguelito-.