Saturday, February 13, 2016

Has The Era Of Mobile Web Apps Finally Come?

It has long been a subject of an argument, essentially since the advent of the mobile web itself more than ten years ago: the anticipation of mobile web taking over the native mobile apps - repeating the success of desktop web on mobile devices - has been just that - the anticipation.

The beauty of "write once, run everywhere" was once again challenged by the realities of computing power and user experience compromises, as it was back in 90s when Java was created with the same promise only to fail delivering on it.

No matter which year is printed on the calendar, the verdict has always been the same: "mobile web apps are promising, but not quite there yet, but wait, they are just around the corner".

At the same time, the times of one-man-show stunts making big $$ by developing mobile apps are over. The industry has increasingly professionalized and the need to support three major mobile platforms (iOS, Android, Windows) is heavily taxing native app development and raising the bar for entry.

Recent apps on my phone - guess which are native vs. web apps.

However, I have seen two interesting developments in the past year, which should make you reconsider the mobile app strategy:
  1. Since Android 5.0, mobile Chrome browser supports the "Marge tabs and apps" feature, which makes web applications such as Facebook or Twitter look like native apps when presented in the recent apps carousel on Android.
  2. With the support of push notifications in Chrome and other mobile browsers, the ability of mobile web apps to catch user's attention and bring her back to the app, many times the primary reason for developing the native app, has become almost obsolete as well.
"Merge tabs and apps" feature in Chrome
It is indisputable, that the user experience of native apps still beats mobile web apps, so for apps I use every day, I prefer native apps. However, for less frequented apps, the situation changes dramatically in my eyes: I hesitate to install apps on my phone just to try them out or use them once or occasionally. My primary concern is privacy & security, but besides that it is also a matter of convenience - the bloat some apps cause, the precious space consumed by them and ironically even the frequent app updates: a rarely used native app may consume more battery by frequent updates from the app store than actually running on the phone. It has been long time ago I uninstall Facebook from my phone and I am completely happy to use the mobile web version for the occasional visits.

Web push notifications settings.
Given my experience above, I believe the mobile web apps should seriously be considered for use cases where you are not aiming at daily usage. Good examples would be various reservation systems, ticketing apps for buying cultural events tickets, travel booking apps, loyalty programs and others. In these cases, a mobile web app removes the friction - no need to install a native app - while still providing decent user experience. Last but last not least - the development and maintenance cost are likely to be much lower than for native apps for multiple platforms and a lot of the infrastructure can be shared between the mobile web app and the desktop web version of the service.

So think twice before you launch that job postings for Android, iOS and Windows mobile developers for your next project - it may well be the case the mobile web can expedite your journey to the customers and save you $$, if your application is intended for occasional transactional use.