Web Apps vs Native, Continued

Peter-Paul Koch has written a great follow-up piece to his article of yesterday about iPhone apps, comparing native vs. Web app. He admits to his mistakes but urges us to continue the discussion over the web apps and the mobile web platform, something I wholeheartedly support. In fact, I’ve been writing a separate article about that since the discussion started, and I’ll be publishing that later today.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of points in PPK’s follow-up that I want to address directly. He writes:

I feel that the mobile operators have the strongest cards when it comes to mobile payments because they are already billing everybody and are already able to identify people through their SIM card. Their system has to be extended in order to accommodate online payments, but that seems doable. In fact, Vodafone is already doing it.

This is not unique to Vodafone; all carriers that have some semblance of apps for sale for their phones do this, the issue with it is that for developers, it’s not great: it means they have to deal with each carrier separately to get their money, and carriers don’t often play nice. Apple may not be perfect either, but I’ve heard more developers being pleased with them over the financial aspects than otherwise.

The real big problem here, though, is that if the payments of the hypothetical “WebAppStore” go through the carriers, then whoever owns and operates the WAS can’t guarantee any (timely) payment to developers unless they front it themselves. Additionally, dealing with carriers around the world—dozens of carriers—is a painful ordeal, whereas dealing with only a couple of credit card companies and/or Paypal is much more manageable (if not that much less painful).

Then comes the discoverability argument. Apparently, getting attention through the App Store is the superior way of disseminating your app. I’d like some more data on that point.

In my response yesterday, I linked to this article on GigaOM which has charts from AdMob indicating that the primary way people find apps is through browsing the AppStore rankings. The second-most common way is people searching for a type of app, which is good news for a possible WebAppStore. The caveat is that having two stores means that searching for a type of app becomes twice the work.

Geolocation is accessible from the browser already. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Indeed it’s not enough, as you can’t easily do maps in conjunction with Geolocation in Safari. That’s a Big Deal™.

Let’s chalk up one inevitable point for Web apps. They beat native apps hands down when it comes to interoperability.

To my way of thinking this is an extremely important point. A large part of my previous post was born out of exasperation that I had to explain interoperability yet again.

Interoperability is definitely a big plus for Web apps, but ironically, PPK himself did the research showing that (mobile) WebKits are not the same across platforms. The argument of interoperability is strong, but not without flaws: there are still many kinks the developer will need to work out on their own for real interoperability. More importantly, if/when device APIs are added to mobileSafari, there’s little chance that they’ll be implemented exactly the same by the Palm Pre, Android phones, etc.

Then, on the topic of UX disadvantages that Web apps have, PPK writes:

But if it can’t be solved, would that matter? Shouldn’t we treat it as the equivalent of the dotted outline; a sure-fire way of letting the user know he has in fact clicked on something? Should we deliberately decide to leave the effect alone, because it’s a platform usability and/or accessibility feature?

Yes, that does matter. As Gruber pointed out, the User Experience of apps on the iPhone matters a lot. They are the defining feature separating the iPhone from other phones. Apple, for their part, will always try to leverage that better UX to set themselves apart from the cross-platform Web apps.

Which, by the way, will be a tricky hurdle for the hypothetical WebAppStore to cross.

Nonetheless, the trade-off between interoperability and UX is definitely worth consideration for each iPhone app developer:

But there’s a trade-off involved here. Do you want perfect UX, or do you want decent interoperability? Does it make sense for every single app to choose UX over interoperability? As I said above, I feel there’s a category of apps where the latter might be more important.

On this, I agree. Whilst PPK and I will probably disagree on the specifics of that “category of apps”, I can easily imagine a slew of apps where the trade-off can be worthwhile for the developer.

Lastly, there’s this:

But the thinking bit is what I have my doubts about. Chris Heilmann tweeted:

I’m just saying, I’ve been to the iphone developer camp and 1 of 40 hacks used web standards. It is just not on the radar.

That’s what I’m afraid of: iPhone developers not even considering Web apps.

It’s an iPhone DevCamp. I suspect that many of the 39 hacks’ developers did consider Web apps, but they did so prior to going to the DevCamp. After all, you tend to do your research before you start hacking away.

Either way, the discussion will continue and more iPhone developers will pick up on it and investigate. If they don’t start using the Web as a platform for apps, then that really just means it isn’t ready yet.

Time will change that.

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