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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Why Mobile Apps Will Soon be Dead

The seeds of destruction for both iOS and Android app stores have already been sown – by none other than Google.

  • May 19, 2011

It’s hard to imagine Apple’s App store – 50 million users, 400,000 apps, 10 billion downloads – being threatened with extinction, but it’s not as if Tyrannosaurus Rex had a clue its demise was imminent until the process was well underway, either. We know that empires crumble: what’s interesting is how.

Games: the ultimate test of downloadable web apps

Right now pundits are focused on the threat of Android. Apple is still shipping plenty of iPhones, but even Steve Jobs must recognize that if his were a Roman empire, the numberless device manufacturers selling Android devices are the metaphorical barbarians at the gates. Android’s not the issue, however – in fact, Android is just another lumbering dinosaur.

The real threat are web apps. The kind that will download to your device the moment you open then, allowing you offline access, whether they’re news, games, email or some other utility. If you don’t believe they’ll work – and eliminate dependencies on plugins outside of open web standards, like flash – go download a free copy of Angry Birds for Google Chrome and try disconnecting from your local network. Magic!

Steve Jobs thought web apps were the future too, in 2008 when he announced that the iPhone would have plenty of apps – all of them available through the browser. As is often the case with Jobs, he was just a little too far ahead of the curve (think of the Newton, his first attempt to create an iPhone-like device) which led him to later reverse himself and create a native app store anyway.

Here’s how Brian Kennish, formerly an engineer at Google and now something of a punk-rock privacy-protecting developer, put it in a recent email:

“One word: distribution. There are 2 billion web users versus 50 million iOS users.”

That doesn’t mean that offline access to web apps has been perfected. But try opening Nytimes.com/chrome in Firefox, any webkit-based browser or, of course, Google Chrome, and you’ll see what the future holds. Disconnect from your network and voila: offline access to, of all things, news.

According to Kennish, the real weakness of current web apps is access to device-specific features.

“[It] is much more a hodgepodge, and will probably always be trickiest to get to parity — hardware manufacturers move faster than standards bodies,” he writes. “I suppose aesthetic considerations will stick around awhile, too — a developer may want to claim the real estate that’d otherwise be taken up by browser chrome (the address bar, search box, et cetera),” writes Kennish.

But stripping browser chrome off of web apps seems like far less of a challenge than developing for an ever expanding array of devices. With web apps, developers could code once and be reasonably confident their app will work on any object – phone, tablet, laptop, etc. – with a standards-compliant browser. The implications for developer time and resources are profound.

Of course, none of these utopian ideals about a future in which all apps are liberated from device-specific stores and particular platforms mean anything unless developers can make money selling web apps. It can’t be a coincidence that Google is only charging a 5 percent commission on web apps sold through its Web App store – it seems like an arrow aimed right at the center of Apple’s app store, which charges six times as much in commission. It’s a future in which the only apps that will need to be native will be those that work with device APIs that aren’t part of existing web standards – in other words, the edge cases.

Kennish concludes: “So in a few years, I think (hope), native apps will be mostly dead but not all dead.”

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