Sheth says that there are a number of advantages for developers who build mobile applications via the Web. While there are only three major operating systems for desktops that developers need to learn, there are tens of mobile-device platforms with various different requirements. Applications can be built on the Web and need to be modified only slightly for different mobile devices. “Given the number of platforms we have in the mobile space,” says Sheth, “we really need a unifying platform … That’s why Google is so heavily investing in the Web becoming the common platform.”
Sheth notes that many developers are already familiar with writing software for the Web. Another advantage of mobile Web apps, he says, is the ability to roll out an update without needing to deploy new code to individual devices. This means that updates can happen more frequently and without the need for users to take action.
Nonetheless, mobile Web apps may have limited capabilities in the near future. “Apps that will work in this environment will be more text heavy or static,” says Sharma. They won’t be the type of apps that need to be constantly updated from a server. “But when you get into games or applications that require [device] support, it becomes tougher to develop applications that are browser only,” he says.
In the long term, there may be little difference between mobile Web apps and the platform-specific ones that run on today’s devices, says Matt Womer, who is the World Wide Web Consortium’s Mobile Web Initiative lead for North America. He notes that users of the iPhone and Android can create widgets that represent the Gmail Web app and place them in the phone’s application palette. “The gap between an app and a Web app is narrowing,” Womer says. “The future will be more Web apps than platform-specific applications that require some sort of specialized knowledge to program. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out with the app stores when everyone starts launching Web apps,” he adds.
Womer says that forthcoming features of HTML 5 will be available in the coming months, although it could take years for the entire standard to be approved. He notes that geolocation is already available, enabling programs in a phone’s browser to tap into the location of a user. And some future features could allow Web software to access data from accelerometers, light sensors, and the microphone.
“I’ve been doing mobile stuff for years,” Womer says, “and this is the fastest rate that I’ve seen things go in the mobile world.”