Google and Mozilla are blurring the distinction between Web apps and native apps. That could have profound implications for Apple and Microsoft.
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For two decades, the Web has represented a potential threat to Microsoft, even as it has also presented opportunities. Web browser pioneer Netscape, in its 2002 complaint against Microsoft, filed after a federal judge found Microsoft had violated antitrust law, offered its explanation of Microsoft's fear of the Web.
"[A]ny PC user that had Netscape Navigator on [his or her] computer could run any software developed for Navigator regardless of the underlying operating system," Netscape's complaint says. "The widespread adoption and use of Navigator therefore would create significant potential to reduce the dependence of most PC users on any particular operating system, such as Windows. In Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' own words, Netscape Navigator threatened to turn Windows into mere 'plumbing.'"
The next generation of Web apps, which Google calls "Chrome packaged apps" and Mozilla calls "Open Web Apps," renews that threat by blurring the distinction between native apps -- apps written for specific operating systems -- and Web apps.
Unlike hosted Web apps, which are essentially pointers to remote Web services, packaged apps rely on local code resources. They can be used without opening the Chrome browser, offline if necessary. But because they rely on the Chrome runtime, they're still secured inside the browser sandbox. They aren't visually identical to native apps since they don't have access to native UI components, but they can be designed to be close enough that users are unlikely to see a distinction.
Chrome packaged apps have been developed primarily for the desktop version of Chrome and Chrome OS, but Google plans to bring them to Chrome for Android and Chrome for iOS through an open source project called Cordova. One limitation to this approach is that Chrome packaged apps for iOS will still have to pass through Apple's approval process, the same way apps packaged with Phone Gap do.
The offline capabilities of Chrome packaged apps might seem like an odd fit for a company like Google that derives most of its revenue from online ads. But the Chrome team is working on a new HTML element, adview, that will support ads in packaged apps. And Google's AdMob already offers offline ad options.
Mozilla's version of the technology is rolling out more gradually, with the assumption that its work and Google's will eventually gel into a unified standard. As Mozilla continues to implement the necessary APIs, users of Firefox OS phones -- currently available in Colombia, Poland, Spain and Venezuela -- can install Open Web Apps through the Firefox Marketplace, as can users of Firefox for Android.
If Google and Mozilla can erase the distinction between Web apps and native apps, the home field advantage conferred by platform ownership will erode.
Apple may be less vulnerable than Microsoft to seeing its operating systems reduced to mere plumbing because of the way it ties its software to its hardware and because it can use those ties as a leash for Web apps. For example, Apple limits the performance of the Web browser embedded in third-party iOS apps, via the UIWebView element, by denying these apps access to its Nitro JIT engine. The company's own mobile Safari browser is not subject to this restriction. Apple treats this as a security measure, but it also offers security against competition by ensuring that mobile Safari has a speed advantage.
Apple has also made it clear, though its recent ad campaign, that it sees design as a major point of differentiation. For users of Apple products, any functional similarity between Web apps and native apps may be obscured by the visual gloss and interface elegance evident in Apple's forthcoming iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks.
The stakes are enormous, beyond the $12.9 billion revenue Apple generated from iTunes content sales in fiscal 2012. Native platforms -- Windows, Windows Phone, OS X and iOS, among others -- offer their owners an advantage. They serve as toll booths, allowing the owner to demand a cut of transactions, and to more easily fend off competition through contractual or technical barriers. But they also serve as a center of gravity for developers. If Google and Mozilla can convince more people to use and pay for Web apps, not only will their e-commerce clout grow but the Web will become an even more attractive platform for developers, to the potential detriment of native development.
Microsoft and Apple have dealt with threats to their platforms before, like Java and Flash. And for the past few years, they've managed to mitigate the impact of evolving Web technology, thanks largely to affinity for Microsoft Office and to Apple's innovation in mobile devices, software distribution and software management. In addition, Apple and Microsoft have made progress developing their own Web-based services like iCloud and Office 365.
What's more, Web advocates over-promised. In 2009, Google's Vic Gundotra declared, "The Web has won." But the Web wasn't yet ready to compete. It lacked the APIs to address mobile hardware, to handle touch input and to function offline. The Web couldn't match the experience Apple offered with its iPhone and the iPad.
Developers saw that mobile users preferred native apps and the app store installation process to typing URLs and managing bookmarks. They saw that mobile games performed better as native apps. A year ago, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "I think the biggest mistake we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native."
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