This may be the year when the mobile web apps finally go mainstream. Or, at least, their hybrid cousins will.
Not because the technology will finally be ready. For most apps, it already is. Rather, the web will finally hit the big time with mobile apps precisely because we’ll talk about it less and use it more.
Time for HTML5
Oh, sure, there are good reasons for the mobile web to finally hit its stride. Sencha’s Nick Harlow offers five:
- High quality WebViews are now available on most platforms (and getting dramatically better thanks to Apple’s new WKWebView in iOS 8). While low-quality WebViews persist within the Android device base, on balance things are looking up;
- Broad platform support is only economically feasible using web tech;
- Web tech bridges the desktop-mobile divide;
- Using web tech helps to simplify application management and security; and
- Device fragmentation is accelerating. The web helps developers keep up
But before we herald the future of hybrid, it’s worth pointing out that some believe that future is already here. As EmberJS co-creator Tom Dale tells me, “”The dirty little secret of native [app] development is that huge swaths of the UIs we interact with every day are powered by web technologies under the hood.”
While Dale may be getting ahead of himself – [tweetable]the reality is that the web still has a long way to go to achieve mass-market app adoption[/tweetable], and maybe constitutes 10% of apps within the app stores – the trends do point toward more hybrid apps, especially among the enterprise set. VisionMobile’s own survey data shows that today 30% of developers are using some kind of cross-platform tool, of which 60% are using PhoneGap.
This is great, but it doesn’t obviate the need for the mobile web to get better to erase complaints about performance. And it will.
Getting better all the time
Summarizing the Google Chrome Developer Summit, Divshot CEO Michael Bleigh says, “Google is doing everything it can to get mobile web to 60fps, which gives you about 16ms per frame to do everything you need to do. It’s hard to even enumerate all the different ways they’re working on this.” Speed will bolster web app performance, perhaps eliminating the “jank” that many associate with web apps.
But it’s not just about accelerating the mobile web.
We also need to rethink how we approach mobile web apps, as Ionic (based on Google’s AngularJS) and React Native (from Facebook) do. While the latter is not “web technology,” strictly speaking, these frameworks are actively advancing the state of the art for web apps.
The result, as Mozilla (and longtime native app) developer James Long puts it, is impressive:
It only takes a few minutes playing with React Native to realize the potential it has. This works. It feels like I’m developing for the web. But I’m writing a real native app, and you seriously can’t tell the difference. At the UI level, there is no difference; these are all native UIViews beautifully sliding around like normal.
Indistinguishable from native performance… but with a far more accessible development platform. That’s powerful.
A question of competence
But let’s be clear: [tweetable]if your development team isn’t any good, it really doesn’t matter which development platform they choose[/tweetable]. A bad iOS programmer is going to lose every time to a good HTML5/web programmer, and vice versa.
A lame one, that is.
Mobile developer Nic Raboy nails this:
All my applications, native and hybrid, have mostly positive reviews and if you visit the apps on Google Play, you’ll see no reviews include mention about how the application was crafted. This is an important thing to notice because many haters will attack developers on the idea that hybrid applications do not perform or look as good as native applications. This is simply not true. Native or hybrid, if the developer or designer is no good, the application will suffer regardless.
So as fantastic as advancements like AngularJS and ReactJS will be for web app development, they’re not going to be enough if developers underinvest in learning them. There are already exceptional hybrid apps like Instagram that demonstrate what strong developers can do with the web. We just need more of them.
Or maybe what we need is better tools.
That’s one primary takeaway from VisionMobile’s “How Can HTML5 Compete With Native?” report. As report author Dimitris Michalakos concludes, “The question is no longer *whether* HTML5 can produce quality apps, but *how* easy it is to create quality web apps.” Given that “HTML5 is like driving a car without a dashboard,” the key is to deliver better dashboards, or tools, to make it easier to build great web apps.
This involves significant improvements to the debugging, profiling, and memory management tools available, but it’s also something the web frameworks can help with.
As such, it increasingly looks like a question of WHEN, not IF, mobile web apps will take off.
And the answer to that question is either “now”, if you’re paying attention to how developers actually build apps today, or soon, if you’re waiting for them to start talking about the fact that they’re building with the web.