When to Make a Mobile Web Application
I believe that unless your application meets one of these native application criteria, you should not create a native application, but should instead focus on building a mobile web application. Like I said before, I’m a big fan of native applications and I feel that there are a lot of great innovative and market opportunities here, but mobile web apps are the only long-term viable platform for mobile content, services, and applications.
Native applications don’t service the user better in any significant way; they only add cost to your project, decrease your distribution channels, plus cause you to lose the ability to incrementally improve your application, lose control and profit, and add to the device fragmentation problem. Plenty of short-term opportunity exists with native apps, but not without great personal risk, not to mention damaging the long-term viability of the mobile content market.
The most interesting case for mobile web apps is actually composed of the reasons stated earlier. If those are the only reasons that you need to create a native app, then what happens if you take away those obstacles from the mobile browser? Something like that is being done by Palm’s webOS. They have created an entire mobile operating system built on WebKit, turning the phone into a web browser. Your “native applications” are just web applications.
Another innovation is the PhoneGap project, an open source effort that allows you to create native applications for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry devices, exposing many device features like location and filesystem access to your web app. These applications can be distributed and sold in device marketplaces, but they share the same code and design. And because it is a web app, we can make a less capable version of our app available for free to lower-end mobile browsers. Build once, and deploy everywhere.
For those who have spent some time in mobile development in the past, you might have noticed the omission of “If you want to create a rich experience” from the reasons why to make a native app. Although there are certainly plenty of devices out there where this still might be the case, you can now create incredibly rich interfaces with mobile web apps. Not only can they be just as compelling as native apps, but they can work across multiple device frameworks with no alterations in code.
The rate of innovation for creating mobile web apps across every mobile device maker is at its highest level in years, but more important than that, for the first time device makers are all working toward achieving the exact same standards, which just happen to be the same standards as the desktop web. In addition, the devices that either lead in mobile web app innovation or support third-party browsers that do, are becoming the top-selling devices in multiple markets.
So, instead of asking yourself, “When to make a mobile web app?” I challenge you to start asking yourself “When not to make a mobile web app?”