Apple’s iPhone App Store may be a resounding success. But Google says app stores are a dead end.
Sour grapes? Maybe. It’s no coincidence that Google has placed its money on web-based applications, for its mobile Android operating system as well as its forthcoming Chrome OS.
Vic Gundotra, Google’s engineering vice president and developer evangelist, said on Friday at the Mobilebeat conference in San Francisco that the future of the mobile industry lies in web-based applications, rather than native software coded to run on specific smartphone operating systems.
“Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning,” Gundotra was quoted in a Financial Times report. “We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”
Ever since Java emerged in the 1990s, the tech industry has debated whether software would shift from native programs sitting on a hard drive (like Microsoft Office) toward web-based applications accessible through a browser (like Google Docs). Developed by Sun Microsystems, Java is a cross-platform environment that many web-based applications use today, albeit “in the cloud” — on central servers — rather than in the browser. One big benefit of cloud-based, web-centric applications is that users can access the apps and their personal data from any computer using a browser.
However, while Google’s internet software suite is certainly popular, web-based apps are far from winning, said Michael Gartenberg, technology strategist of Interpret. He noted that Apple’s App Store, which serves 65,000 third-party apps and has attracted over 1.5 billion downloads and 100,000 developers, is a testament for strong consumer and developer interest in native applications.
“It’s odd that Google feels the need to position as one versus the other,” Gartenberg said. “That’s last century thinking.”
Gartenberg pointed out that many iPhone apps are native and web-based at the same time. That’s because a lot of the apps download or share data via the internet. And it’s beneficial for the apps to be native, because that way they’re programmed to specifically take advantage of the iPhone’s processor, graphic accelerator and other hardware features.
“It’s not about web applications or desktop applications but integrating the internet in the cloud into these applications that are on both my phone and the PC,” Gartenberg said. “Ultimately, it’s about offering the best of both worlds to create the best experience for consumers — not forcing them to choose one or the other.”
Gartenberg highlighted social networking service Twitter as an example. The Twitter service exists on the internet, and yet most users prefer reading their feeds and posting tweets with a native application rather than visiting Twitter.com in a browser, Gartenberg said.
Raven Zachary, an analyst and president of iPhone strategist firm Small Society, also disagreed with Google’s assessment. He said that the App Store makes it clear that native apps are proving a better experience for consumers. When Apple released the original iPhone in 2007, the company offered no software developer kit for the smartphone and told developers to make web-based apps. However, web-based apps proved unpopular among developers, and the iPhone didn’t explode in popularity until its App Store and the second-generation iPhone 3G launched in 2008.
“It’s pretty clear that native apps and on-phone distribution are by far the most efficient and compelling ways to have consumer apps,” Zachary said.
And speaking technically, Zachary pointed out that there will always be fundamental challenges with coding apps purely for the web: Not all hardware will be optimized to run the software. Different phones possess different screen resolutions, for example, meaning some apps would load better on certain phones than others. And other than that, a web-based app can’t take full advantage of a specific phone’s powers if it’s coded to work in a cross-platform environment.
He added that web technology is not improving quickly enough to fulfill Google’s prophecy of web apps winning in the near future.
“The progress of web technologies is going so slow,” Brichter said. “With HTML5, they can’t even decide on a video format…. It’s just moving at a snail’s pace.”
What do you think about the future of mobile? Web apps winning? App stores surviving? Both native and web co-existing? Vote in the poll below.
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