Why “Web vs. Native” Isn’t Really Black and White

Mobile developers have long debated the pros and cons 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 trying to explain “why mobile apps will soon be dead.”
The idea, of course, is that HTML5 and other Web-based technologies will soon give developers the tools they need to finally “write once, run anywhere,” and build cross-platform apps that deliver the kind of immersive experience that currently is available only through native applications. Of course, those tools aren’t ready yet, and likely won’t be for at least a few years — 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 like almost any issue, the truth is much more complicated than black and white and the concept of one technology “killing” the other in the foreseeable future is laughable. Instead, both kinds of technologies will evolve as they coexist, and savvy developers will choose the best technology — or combination of Web-based and native technologies — for their specific apps, allowing them to build relatively immersive apps and tweak them for each operating system with minimal headaches.
Hewlett Packard, for instance, is raising eyebrows with its claim that it will dethrone the iPad with its upcoming TouchPad, a device that runs Palm’s webOS — an operating system that developers are finding increasingly attractive thanks in part to HP’s Enyo framework. As HP demonstrated earlier this year, Enyo — which is based entirely on Web technologies — enables developers to build a single app that can run effectively across webOS phones and tablets with different screen resolutions, as well as in a computer browser, without the need for a formal emulator or OS install. The framework of course, could help HP pursue its stated goal of expanding webOS beyond mobile devices into the broader world of PCs, printers and other interconnected gadgets, giving developers a potentially huge new base of devices to build apps for. 
Meanwhile, the concept of hybrid apps — which couple the broad support of Web-based apps with the richer features of downloadable offerings — increasingly is attracting the attention of developers. Hybrid apps use a framework such as Appcelerator’s Titanium,  Sencha Touch or Netbiscuits to enable cross-platform development using Web technologies, and essentially are mobile sites running within an app. For example, a search application could use a native user interface and leverage GPS to determine location, then display the results through a Web view. Similarly, a native shopping app can use the camera to scan a barcode and upload the image with a single click, then return information through a browser. 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 Android Market — which is a big plus for smaller developers who face an enormous task in drawing traffic to their Web sites.
So while pundits continue to paint the issue as a cage match between native and Web-based apps, the challenge for developers, product strategists and others lies in striking a balance between creating a high-performance app and making it available to the broadest possible audience. Those targeting a massive audience with basic content and a simplified user interface might be OK with a single mobile Web site, while developers of sophisticated, immersive mobile games have no real choice but to build native apps that fully leverage the operating system. The best strategy, though, is to determine which consumers you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to accomplish. And for providers of mobile operating systems, the key is helping your developers target as many users as possible with engaging apps — and doing it with minimal investment.

Question of the week

Do you believe native mobile applications are an endangered species?