On desktop computers web apps have come to dominate many application categories. They are easier to develop and deploy across multiple platforms and it’s possible to iterate much faster. A very large number of developers would like to be able to apply the same technologies and techniques on mobile devices but very few are able to do so successfully, particularly for mass market consumer apps. One of the most important reasons for this is performance. Resolving this issue is much more about politics than technology.
Are mobile web apps doomed to be slow?
Platform wars and politics
With the technologies available or on the very near horizon today, plus improvements to mobile browsers across the major platforms, there’s almost no doubt that we could have competitive web app performance. The problem is that to get there requires platform providers and OEMs to adopt the technologies and implement the improvements – it’s not necessarily in their interests to do so.
Apple and Microsoft want users locked-in while Google wants them logged-in. Mozilla wants the open web everywhere but Google funds them. Opera recently gave up on writing their own browser core and use Google’s instead. That’s over-simplifying but fairly accurate. With other browser vendors attempting to prevent the user tracking that Google’s business model depends on (through default Do Not Track settings or third party cookie blocking) the best way to ensure users stay logged-in is to get them all using Chrome. This means they’re fighting a new browser war for control of the desktop web and taking that to the bulk of the mobile market through Android. In the process they are building several browser technologies to differentiate rather than standardise (e.g. they’ll prefer their own Native Client solution to asm.js).
A ray of light?
While there may be several classes of app for which mobile browsers are already good enough, for those hoping to develop all apps with web technologies, the news is not all bad. Although it seems unlikely to be possible to deliver a single solution with great performance everywhere, we might not be far from being able to deliver a good level of performance almost everywhere. Although Apple appear to have some strategic performance limitations, they also have some of the fastest hardware on the market. At the other end of the spectrum good Android browsers are reaching low end smartphones and the Firefox OS, also targeted at low cost devices, has an excellent web app environment. The other good news is that while we have real competition in the mobile market, browsers should keep getting better all round. We’re unlikely to see the return to stagnation of the Internet Explorer dominated early 2000’s.
* Apple do have a good security reason for doing this but they haven’t been in a hurry to resolve it either.