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Native? Mobile web? Who cares, it is all about the experience.

November 4, 2012

I was on a panel the other day and once again the “native app vs mobile web” issue came up.  The ideas that was once again posited with great passion is that people want to access native apps on mobile phones, not the mobile web.

My (equally passionate) counterargument… Apps? Mobile web? Who cares? It is the same thing.

Basically, people want to access the native app user experience on mobile phones. If they get the experience, the underlying technology is irrelevant.

People like apps. They’re simple. They’re easy to use. They use the various functions of a device like the camera, contacts list, accelerometer etc. Also, in some cases, content is available offline so you can still do stuff when you’re not connected.

In addition, apps have their own navigation. You don’t enter in URLs and there’s no browser navigation like the back-button, everything you do involved swipes and touching large buttons.

Perfect. Great experience. We all love it. If you get that experience, who cares about the underlying technology??

I guess the hurdle that many need to get over is that the mobile web can provide that exact same native app experience. Access the mobile web does not necessarily mean accessing it via a browser.

At Mozilla, we’re building the app capabilities described above into the mobile web. We call this the “Web Runtime”, or WebRT for short.

What the WebRT enables is for the user to access web content, use the web to access device-level components like the camera, and even cache content for offline use… all outside of the browser!

Hard to believe? Well, that is what we do at Mozilla. We make the web better for all (pretty cool, huh?) So I know all this is happening because I know the people working on it and I’ve seen what WebRT can do with my own eyes.

The benefit to developers is that it is easier to build apps using WebRT because there are no new programming languages to learn, they’re just using web technologies.

Even more importantly, app distribution is easier because running an app on WebRT means you can distribute an app via the web, run it on your own servers, and not have to bother with all the arcane rules surrounding various app stores and marketplaces.

And the most important issue, that of the end-user experience, remains the same. To the end-user, the experience is the mobile app. The end-user cares about simple navigation, offline access and device-level access and they don’t want to necessarily bother with a browser.

If an app can provide that, the user doesn’t care if the app is native code or a WebRT “app-ified” mobile web.

Sometimes, it is best to develop in native code. Increasingly, it will become easier and more cost-effective to develop for the mobile web.

If it makes no difference to the end-user experience, then the decision shouldn’t be based on technology religion but rather simple practicalities. And in that calculation, mobile web will increasingly be the answer.

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