The browser's resized future in a fragmented www world
The safe option in a native jungle
We've all gone native
Application makers have willingly followed the device Pied Pipers. Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, have flirted with generic alternatives built using HTML5 but have spiked these and gone native. The app entrepreneurs like WhatsApp, whom others will now be emulating in the hope of getting bought by Google, are also native so they can also work well on the chosen smartphone or tablet-maker’s underlying hardware.
Native is on a run for two reasons: one, because the app writers were ordered to do so by the app store owners or phone makers and there was too much at stake in saying "no". Two: because tuning the app to the hardware ensured the app performed beautifully and without any crashes. In the case of the social networking apps, native apps had to work with the devices' hardware to be of value – onboard cameras, geo-location features, keypads and other aspects for which there is no single global standard or reference spec.
The success of devices and native apps would seem to confirm the end of the generic website and generic website viewer that is the browser.
But I would offer a counter-theory: the pendulum will swing back and the browser and generic web will find a new home on a new web.
You will soon tire of this... fondlesome-slab
The pressure caused by devices and the collapse of the PC will ease. Growth of smartphones and tablets is expected to slow down by 2017 while sales of new PCs are expected to stop shrinking and stabilise to a new normal.
Those building apps will need to make intelligent bets on what they turn native and what they keep generic. With millions of apps in some companies' app stores, joining that with a native app might not be the best way to come to customer's attention. The more apps there are, the more you get lost in the noise. Building a web app optimised for mobile might be the better way to go, depending on the app in question – say, retail store versus game.
Native is risky: application writers are tied into the roadmaps of hardware makers and app store owners. What happens when the roadmap shifts, breaking changes disable your app, or the app store maker shuts down? What id the handset or software platform is discontinued or pulls out? Native is also confusing: should you invest in the Android or the iPhone version of WhatsApp?
The risks will become more pronounced once growth slows down and the market enters a period of consolidation.
The browser still has some hold-out areas of strength: entertainment, shopping and search remain the three single biggest areas for the browser over native apps, according eMarketer data from a few years back. The browser and the PC could still have a role to play in serving customers who are not satisfied with squinting and poking at a small screen or losing connectivity.
Fragmentation is hurting the PC and the browser, yes, but it can also ensure their future in a world where no one dominates - they just need to right size.
In this world, consuming the web becomes a technology choice, and we have been here before - even in that supposed golden era of the 1990s and 2000s when the web was viewed through the browsers of IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari. Back then, app authors had to pick the Microsoft stack or the open option.
Companies, retailers especially, are already waking up to this and not swinging with the native app crowd. They are building a version of their website for the iPad and Android but also making sure their sites work on mobile through a browser.
Two-and-a-half decades after Berners-Lee dismissed “fancy graphics techniques”, the way "the web” looks and feels is as important as ever. The question for the next 25 years is how far the fragmentation continues and how the browser can find its equilibrium in this chaos. ®