Chinese Competitor for Android Doubles Down on Web Apps

Developers are about to have a billion new reasons to deploy apps on the web rather than natively to any one platform

Jul 6, 2011

Alibaba, one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, is launching its own mobile operating system. Details on the OS are sketchy, but one in particular leaps out: early reports are that it will rely on cloud-based web apps rather than native ones.

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma at a company event

Alibaba has no history in the hardware or OS business, but it does have a history in the one area that seems to count: payment platforms. Frictionless purchasing and the possession of 200 million credit card numbers via iTunes has proved to be the secret sauce that drove developers to create apps for the iPhone, and if Alibaba can come out of the gate with its own easy, built-in payment system, it just might have a chance at attracting application developers.

Just as Facebook appears to be entering the web app fray, backed by its own mobile payments system, Alibaba’s other advantage is that by betting on web apps, its phone can tap an ecosystem that grows larger every time a vendor piles onto it: the web.

The ranks of companies trying to make web apps work also include Google’s Chromebook and web app store. As developers colonize the web with for-pay apps everyone in this space has a powerful incentive to use standards-compliant browsers that can run web apps without modification.

What’s happening, in essence, is that Android and iOS are gaining an entirely new competitor, one whose growth cannot be limited by hardware availability, patent trolls or licensing arrangements: the whole of the web.