What the Mobile Web Means for Web Apps

I’m a web developer; that’s my jam. I enjoy making websites, and I really enjoy trying new technologies, techniques, and hacks for websites. In 2012, that means making websites responsive. While the ‘Responsive Web Design’ movement started a few years ago, it’s really starting to pick up steam with better browser support for HTML5 and CSS 3 across all devices. Then, book and training form great organizations like A List Apart, and tools like jQuery Mobile and ZURB’s Foundation, make it really easy to create websites that are supported and look great across all devices.

The changing technology allows us to push websites forward into the realm of mobile without sacrificing quality, features, or content. There’s no reason mobile sites should be any more limited than their desktop counterparts today. So what does all this hubbub mean for web apps? We can’t really be sure how web apps will evolve, but I have a few ideas based on what I’ve read and some things I am personally doing.

Mobile Versions of Everything

For the sake of this argument, let’s define mobile devices as smartphones and tablets.

Moving forward, I’d say for 90% of web apps, it will be imperative to have a mobile optimized version. Why? Mobile device use is growing at a crazy rate; 35% growth in less than a year, in fact. More people are joining the smartphone/tablet army and more people are taking to the mobile web to do things. There is a reason mobile apps are so popular.

Mobile vs. PC Use by Hour

Soon (if not already) it’s going a given that if you don’t have a mobile version of your app, you’re behind the times. There are certain things I get a little annoyed about if I can’t do them easily from my Galaxy Nexus or iPad (first world problems, I know). It’s not just me, or the tech savvy people though. We are currently working on a mobile app for the school I work for and college students are expecting a lot out of it. They want to be able to do things like check grades, schedules, and homework from their mobile devices. The kicker is that for a lot of that stuff, you don’t even need a native app to do it. It might actually be better suited for a mobile web app.

It’s probably a good thing to start thinking about that now anyway because…

Developers will use the Mobile Web as a Platform

Here’s the thing: native mobile apps are where it’s at now because you have access to pieces of the hardware that you might not get through the browser. Here’s the other thing: that’s quickly changing. You can already detect location through the browser, and the smart money says soon you’ll be able to do a lot more. Even so, you can easily build a mobile website and call a web view using the iOS or Android SDK, which makes everything except the content native. That means you can have push notifications, access the accelerometer, and more. And why would developers do this?

The app submission process, particularly for Apple, is a cumbersome one. Your iOS app might not get approved for 2 weeks. Two weeks! If you can perform all of the functionality from the mobile web, why not take that route? Your app doesn’t have to go through a long approval process, it doesn’t cost any money, you can use the tools you already know, and it’s platform independent! Plus, whenever you make changes to your site code, just deploy the changes and, boom, all of your users will be able to see the new features or updates in all their glory. And if your users decide to switch platforms, they can still use your app just the same on their new platform. After all, even if you prefer iOS to Android, or vise-versa, wouldn’t you rather be able to reach most users and quit worrying about which platform is going to win the mobile race?

I suspect that soon we’ll see a mobile web app boom similar to what we saw with web apps on the desktop. As the mobile platforms mature, as developers and more importantly, users shape the app landscape, we’ll be able to do some truly powerful stuff on the mobile web. History, after all, does have a habit of repeating itself.

Final Thoughts

Right now, PCs are still primary work machines. We’re not quite fully in the “post-PC” era just yet. But we are hurdling towards it at a very fast rate. As a developer, you need to make sure your web apps are mobile-friendly. That doesn’t just mean accessible on a mobile device; it means leveraging the power of mobility in your app. Smartphone and tablet users shouldn’t get a simplified version of your app; at the least, they should get the same features in a way they can use them on the go, and at best, your site should be even better in a touch-first world. As mobile browsers get more powerful, we should see increasingly more powerful web apps that make your browser again the most important app on your device. Don’t let your site or web app get left behind!


  • Anonymous

    What about apps like Paper that was just released for the iPad. There is no way mobile apps like that can be done through web apps. Unless WebGL gets an insane overall in the near future.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      That is true. And, btw, Paper is awesome.

    • http://web.appstorm.net/author/jcasabona/ Joe Casabona

      That’s just the thing. I do think that we will have browsers capable of doing that soon. There is already a web-based drawing tool called chalk by 37signals using HTML5 Canvas: http://chalk.37signals.com/

      We are also getting pretty powerful smart phones. If you had told people in 2000 what desktop browsers would be capable of today, they would balk at you.

      • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

        True too. So for today, yes, native apps are way more powerful. But browser-based tools may well catch up and surpass native tools. Both are correct :)

      • http://web.appstorm.net/author/jcasabona/ Joe Casabona

        Agreed!

  • Tarek

    What about page transitions though? I’ve found that it’s still an issue. For example a very basic native app that has a master/detail view layout, where the master view is a native table with rows, which when selected, transition the ‘window’ to a detail view. Then adding an ‘Edit’ button in the detail view’s toolbar allows the user to edit the data without loading another window, then save and then return back to the master view cleanly with a native transition. Not to mention ‘swipe’ a row to delete functionality ala iOS

    These are very common app features I’ve had to deal with and have yet to find a mobile web alternative.

    In general I think where you have to deal with loading a page at any point, this is where the mobile web fails for me.

    Any thoughts?

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