It may seem like ancient history, but the iPhone first appeared only four years ago, and when it first shipped users could not install apps on it. When he first announced the iPhone, Steve Jobs said we didn’t need apps because there were plenty of web apps, or sites, that you could access with Mobile Safari.
We know that people did not agree with Apple and sought out ways to jailbreak the iPhone so that they could install and run apps, and the next release of the iPhone came with the iTunes App Store and the ability to run third party apps. The question is, was Apple’s original idea wrong, or was the smartphone technology just not ready to enable web apps to provide the capabilities that people expect from apps?
Consider that Facebook does not provide an iPad app; I think the reason why is twofold. First, because the iPad is more like a PC in screen size and capabilities, people are comfortable accessing Facebook in a web browser. Second, Facebook really would prefer to minimize the number of different apps it has to develop, as I am sure every social networking provider would like to do, because writing and supporting lots of apps costs money.
So, as faster wireless networks like Verizon’s LTE becomes available to more people, and mobile web browsers fully support HTML5 and can quickly process HTML5, I expect to see developers releasing more web apps. (HTML5 is a web standard that provides the ability for web sites to provide many of the capabilities that are available in mobile apps.) In fact, I expect that as soon as an HTML5 Facebook web app can be developed that has the same capabilities as the current mobile apps, Facebook will drop support for the mobile apps.
For web apps to reach their potential, we therefore need web browsers on mobile phones that can process HTML5 as fast as possible. At the MIX11 conference this week Microsoft demonstrated Internet Explorer 9, which Microsoft will provide for Windows Phone 7 in the next major update later this year, by showing a comparison of HTML5 processing on the iPhone, Windows Phone 7 with IE9, and Android.
You can see in a video of the demonstration that IE9 processes the demo HTML5 app much faster than the iPhone and Android phones. Granted, the demonstration is at a Microsoft conference and we have no way of knowing whether we will see that actual performance when the update is available for users. However, I do think the demonstration is significant by showing that Microsoft is raising the bar with mobile browser performance, which I think is important to the viability of web apps replacing mobile apps as the main way we use our smartphones in the future.