A Farewell to Apps?

Ars Technica recently posted an article by Larry Seltzer that discusses the possibility of native mobile apps being marginalized by web-based solutions thanks to the increasing advancement of web standards on mobile. Normally, I’d ignore something like this — in most cases when you see the tech press post a headline that’s something akin to for will A kill B, you can rest assured that the content will be fairly overstated and that you’ve been taken by a click-bait title. For the most part, Seltzer does a good job of understanding some of the challenges faced when using web-based technologies to develop but overstates the desirability of having mobile websites replace apps while simultaneously overlooking obvious shortfall of a pure mobile-web only strategy: performance.

JavaScript interpreters have been getting better and better every year and most JITs (just in time compilers) are on track to annually provide “free” performance increases on most browsers for most common use cases. However, they’re not keeping up in terms of raw speed with optimized native code on specialized hardware — for instance, Swift code on Apple’s A8 processor in the iPhone 6S. Another thing to consider is that all of the code on a mobile website must be run through the browser’s JavaScript interpreter.

The idea that native apps aren’t necessarily right for all business needs is pretty obvious and I agree with the author up to that point, but most of the technical issues that he mentions have been addressed by hybrid apps. Hybrid apps using Cordova-based tool-kits such as Ionic address the most common performance issues seen with mobile sites and the lack of web-based APIs for some many hardware features by actually having native level tie-ins. Basically, they implement native API’s a layer below where the developer writes his app logic and expose a JavaScript version of the APIs for the developer to use. From a technical perspective, developers can write any hybrid plugin for any functionality released in a future version of Android or iOS, then access that functionality via JavaScript.

Mobile websites do have one advantage of packaged apps and that’s that they do not have to be distributed via the AppStore. This, however, is not a technical problem, but rather a policy one. Apple still opts to manually approve every single app submission and app update for their iOS store and that creates an artificial delay between developers completing a release and users being able to install it; in cases where the developer is fixing a major security issue, this can be devastating and needlessly exposes users to risk. Still, the advantages of being able to tie directly into device functionality and the performance increases gained make publishing apps via the AppStore mechanism or some enterprise deployment scheme the right choice for the vast majority of apps whether you are developing using native or HTML5 technologies.