A decade ago at the turn of the century the dotcom bubble was at its peak. Web applications of the day provided by “application service providers” were in vogue, and relegating well-established client/server applications to the category of legacy applications. These hosted Web applications became the modern applications and architecture, and billions of dollars were invested creating the bubble in which counting eyeballs became far more important than counting revenue. The dotcom crash of 2001 brought much-needed sanity to the industry. The name gradually changed from ASP or dotcom to the much more prosaic software-as-a-service, and business models that valued revenue and paying customers rather than fleeting eyeballs became the vogue again. Web applications matured and SaaS became the fastest growing business model starting sometimes in the middle of the current decade. With this maturity, the Web application architecture became the leading architecture even though the client/server model continued to play an important role.
Then came the smartphone tsunami, starting with the Apple iPhone in 2007. The dominant hardware platform for personal computing started shifting from desktops/laptops to smartphones and mobile devices. On this new platform the modern Web apps started looking old in comparison to what the mobile world is clamoring for:
- Web apps designed and optimized for full screen laptops/desktops simply do not fit the small displays of smartphones.
- Large web pages of typical Web apps take a much longer to download because smartphones have lower network bandwidth and processor speed. Longer downloads and slower speed correlates with poor user experience.
- Web apps designed for the connected users became difficult to work with in the mobile world where network disconnections or other interruptions are frequent.
- The user interface design of Web apps aimed at providing as much relevant information as possible to the user. This design -the antithesis of minimalist design– is not suitable for mobile devices where users simply do not have the time to absorb all the information and make quick decisions or actions. The best smartphone software was based on a minimalist user interface as exemplified by the apple iPhone.
- The smartphone is more than a computing device. It is also a device for communications, navigation and imaging. Web apps of the day optimized for laptops/desktops that did not have these capabilities, were not designed to make use of any of the additional functionality of smartphones.
In this void created by the surge in smartphone use the software industry seems to have moved backwards. Proprietary native apps for different smartphone platforms are back in fashion. The “app stores” of the major platform vendors that generally exclude competitive products have become major players, in contrast to the openness of the Web. Native apps have the advantage that they are developed using proprietary tools provided by the platform vendor which gives them access to the hardware functionality of the smartphone. Thus native apps provide a rich user interface that far exceeds what can be done inside the browser that constrains Web apps in its sandbox, and also greater functionality by providing seamless access to voice, camera, geo location and memory of the smartphone. It is for this reason that the smartphone app market has surged and there are hundreds of thousands of such applications.
Today these native apps have become the new modern apps and threaten to relegate Web apps to the passé category of legacy apps. A large number of companies of all types, ranging from lone developers to the largest corporations, are clamoring to introduce the next killer native app for smartphones. This despite the fact that native apps are a throwback to the early days of the Personal Computer when applications were proprietary, distribution of applications was headache, maintenance and upgrades was a nightmare, and frivolous games and poor-quality apps dominated the landscape; the same problems which afflicts smartphone native apps today.
To avoid becoming legacy apps and a thing of the past, Web apps have to adapt to the reality of today which is that the smartphone is the hardware platform of the future replacing the personal computer which is fast becoming the platform of the past. This adaption requires Web apps to become Mobile Web apps, which means that they must provide a rich user experience to mobile users and cater to their discontinuous work patterns and short attentions spans. Mobile Web apps can accomplish this only if they are able to deliver the following:
- Behave like native apps on small displays
- Adjust to the size and functionality of different smartphones
- Allow users to work in a minimalist UI so that they can work in short, discontinuous sessions which is often the only way they can work
- Enable users to change to the most convenient device even in the middle of their work
- Leverage the hardware functionality of smartphone such as voice, video, and geo location for delivering rich and useful applications
As I noted in my post Why Smartphone Apps Need HTML5, the growth of HTML5 will go a long way to addressing the last requirement and deliver rich applications that can fully leverage the hardware functionality of smartphones. As for the other four capabilities, Chatty Apps by Chatty Solutions provide an excellent platform for rapidly smartphone-enabling Web applications.