Last week, Google announced an upgrade to its Web-based Gmail service for users of the iPhone and Android-powered devices. The new service has an easier-to-use interface, loads and searches e-mails faster, and has the ability to check e-mails even without access to a wireless signal.
More significant than the interface, however, is the underlying technology that enables it. Google took advantage of features of the browsers running on both platforms to create a Web application that looks and feels like one that has been downloaded onto the device. Representatives from Google claim that this is just the beginning. The company hopes that the new mobile Gmail will kick-start a trend in mobile Web apps with developers using the Internet to build and deploy more powerful applications.
According to some analysts, this approach to mobile development could have large implications for the way that developers distribute their software and the way that people buy it. It’s even possible that more-powerful mobile Web apps could undercut some of the business of Apple’s App Store, says Chetan Sharma, an analyst who runs his own consulting firm in Issaquah, WA.
“From the user’s point of view, one of the problems with the App Store is discovery of content and apps,” says Sharma. “It could be easier to discover mobile software living outside the App Store using a browser.” The user won’t care whether the app is running out of a browser or is running directly on the phone, Sharma says, “as long as you get the same sort of experience.” A developer also has much more control over the distribution of the software, and she can keep the revenue it generates instead of splitting it with a third-party distributor like Apple.
More powerful mobile Web apps won’t become widespread overnight, though. Google is leveraging Web browser capabilities that exist on a relatively small number of devices: the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the current (and forthcoming) Android phones. These devices run browsers based on the open-source Webkit code base, which has already implemented features required under the forthcoming Web programming standard HTML 5.
These features include a graphics tool called Canvas, “persistent storage,” and an “application cache,” explains Shyam Sheth, product manager on Google’s mobile team. Canvas is something of an alternative to the popular Adobe Flash software that’s commonly used to create graphics and animation on the Web. Persistent storage provides a way for data, originally on a remote server (such as Google’s e-mail servers), to be stored locally, on the device. The HTML 5 application cache keeps important information about an application on the device that allows it to open quickly, as if it were running directly on the hardware instead of remotely. The iPhone version of Gmail uses only HTML 5, whereas Android uses a combination of HTML 5 and Gears (a Google software add-on that enables its Web apps to run offline).