HTML5 vs native: Harry Coder and the mudblood mobile app princes

Developers just want their ideas to generate money

WKWebView: the game-changer

Mattt Thompson, creator and maintainer of AFNetworking and other popular open-source projects, spells it out:

If your app is little more than a thin container around web content, WKWebView is a game-changer. All of that performance and compatibility that you've longed for is finally available. It's everything you might have hoped for.

If you're more of a native controls purist, you may be surprised at the power and flexibility afforded by the new technologies in iOS 8. It's a dirty secret that some stock apps, such as Messages, use WebKit to render tricky content. The fact that you probably haven't noticed should be an indicator that web views actually have a place in app development best practices.

Given how prevalent HTML5 already is within so-called native apps, it’s likely that Apple just threw the door wide open to even more HTML5 development.

Google answers the call

Google, perhaps feeling a bit sheepish at ceding the web crown to the king of native, is fighting back in the only way it knows how: page rankings and advertising.

As Google announced recently, the company is experimenting with labeling mobile-friendly websites, and even “experimenting with using the mobile-friendly criteria as a ranking signal". In other words, those that invest in making mobile-friendly websites would likely see themselves jump upward in the page rankings.

While not directly relevant to mobile apps, per se, it could conceivably drive more innovation into pure-play mobile apps accessible via a mobile browser rather than an app store. That would be a big step forward for the mobile web.

All of this matters because the web itself may be at stake. The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims recently opined that "the web is dying and apps are killing it".

Mims castigates the shift to native apps that put private corporations such as Apple, Google and Amazon in control of how we interact with information. It’s like we’ve gone back to Compuserve and AOL, the gatekeepers of the early web.

Not everyone agrees

John Gruber, for his part, thinks Mims’ argument is ridiculous. Gruber argues that apps are “just superior clients to open internet services". The web remains open, in other words, but our interaction with it can be closed.

In fact, he goes on, apps win because they simplify the distribution of information:

It’s just a conceptual simplification. Instead of a web app running inside a browser, running as an app, inside an OS (three levels of abstraction), we just have apps running within an OS (two levels). Simpler, easier, more elegant.

Gruber, however, protests a bit too much. Control the access points and you control the network or, in this case, the web.

Which is why it’s so critical that HTML5 grows in strength. This is partly a matter of continuing to improve the technology but, as Dale told me, HTML5’s biggest gap is really a function of distribution, and getting that distribution right will take time:

When people say web technology lags behind native development, what they're really talking about is the distribution model. Let's be clear about what the web is: an open, standardized platform, accessible to everyone, that allows users to run completely untrusted code from multiple vendors, where applications are "installed" on demand just by visiting a URL...[A]pp stores are an easy problem to solve in comparison.

It's not that the pace of innovation on the web is slower, it's just solving a problem that is an order of magnitude more challenging than how to build and distribute trusted apps for a single platform.

With Apple and Google finally battling over the mobile web, and not merely mobile apps, HTML5’s future looks bright. Again. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of mobile at Adobe. Previously he was corporate strategy at 10gen and SVP of business development at Nodeable, acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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