(Native) app killer

I’ve never been a great fan of native device apps. They go against the grain of pure browser-based apps, introduce cross-platform compatibility issues, and raise privacy concerns.

Ever since the introduction of iPhone, iPad and Android devices native app development has surged and browser-based web apps have languished. Apple recently announced that 15 billion apps have been served via the AppStore and the Android MarketPlace weighs in at 3 billion apps downloaded. For all the talk of the death of the PC, native apps mean that the basic download and install paradigm is still intact.

If you get past the requirement to download and install the app then the privacy issues start. Why does a power management utility app have a need to take pictures with the device camera or read the phone log? Figuring out what are reasonable terms and conditions of different apps adds to the general time and effort overhead when installing apps. More ominously, there are also concerns about data leakage.

Developers also have to make a choice between iOS, Android or both. (Blackberry and Nokia/Windows have already been written off by analysts). This means greater investment in differing development skills, double the lifecycle management effort and managing different commercial terms.

It’s clear that app market or platform owners have a vested interest in protecting revenue streams emanating from apps sold via their platforms. The market owner has exceptional power to make unilateral decisions on key issues such as revenue share and deemed acceptability. Apple for instance, levies a 30% revenue share fee on app subscriptions. Apple recently forced Amazon to remove links from within the Kindle iPad app directing users to the Amazon website to prevent purchases being made outside of the app environment.

Of course, apps wouldn’t thrive if they were devoid of value. A native device app offers richer functionality compared to a pure browser-based or web app.

But this is all changing with the introduction of HTML5. HTML5 will bring app-like functionality to the humble HTML page.

In fact, Amazon, after complying with Apple’s demand, recently launched an HTML 5 version of the Kindle Reader. This offers similar functionality to the native iPad app. Books can even be saved to the device via the web app to be read later.

There will be a place for native apps but to a large extent I believe web apps based on HTML 5 will become the de facto app delivery vehicle. The web is striking back.

Zaheer Ismail