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The Case for Mobile Web Applications February 3, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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Most if not all of the mobile platform storefronts (think iPhone App Store, App World, Android Market, and the like) specialize in applications that run natively on the respective platform.  When communication is required with a back end server or a service, it uses the communication APIs offered by the device operating system, rather than any standard mechanism.

There was a time when we referred to such practices as lock-in.  Lock-in was typically used by hardware and software vendors against business customers.  By selling proprietary hardware and software, vendors would be able to ensure that its customers would face an expensive transition to products from other vendors.

With mobile phones, it’s not the customer getting locked in so much as it is the application developers.  Most mobile application developers are small companies, or even individuals, and can typically devote time and energy to one platform for their applications.

If you are a software developer and make a commitment to write an application to one mobile platform, you are going to devote your time to either the platform that has the potential to make you the most money, or the one that excites you intellectually.

Today, that platform is the iPhone, which arguably has the best user interface, most mature application platform, and most mindshare.  That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s fewer resources available to consider cross-developing applications for other phones.  The situation is in some ways similar to how Microsoft’s focus on application developers has paid long-term dividends in market share for PCs and Windows.

That’s the primary reason I propose that most applications should be Web-based.  CNN Money makes a similar argument here, although the article doesn’t propose a solution of Web applications.

But there’s more.

A single Web application should (emphasis on should) be able to run on multiple phones, as long as the browser is full-featured enough.  That removes lock-in for developers, and lets the end users decide how and where those applications will be used.

Of course, it’s not that easy.  Web applications typically don’t have a great user interface, and interactions with the remote server, including re-rendering the page after any changes makes for a slow style of working.  Ajax and similar technologies have the potential to help Web application performance, but the phone browsers have to be able to support JavaScript, and do so well.

Personally, I appreciate multiple phone platforms, and healthy competition between them.  I hope that the competition isn’t decided by how many developers get locked in to a specific phone because they are only able to devote resources to one.  We’ve seen how it turned out once, with Microsoft Windows, and many people aren’t especially happy with the result.  Let’s see if the Web can help us change that.

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Comments»

1. Roger Snowden - February 12, 2010

The solution ought to be simple– something like Flash runtime for mobile devices. I still don’t understand why this is not a long done deal.

Since I started developing business apps back in the late 70s– mostly for minicomputers– the universal client has been the elusive dream. We went through rm-cobol, the UCSD p-code pascal runtime, dbase and variants– all of which offered something but lacked something critical.

Adobe seems to have the ticket, but somehow it is not getting punched on mobile platforms. Shame.


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