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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But in recent months, the prospects for Web apps have been looking up. The API and performance gap has been closing. Mozilla's ASM.js and Google's Native Client and Portable Native Client technologies show that Web apps can compete on the basis of speed.
The real proof, however, will be whether Web apps can compete with native apps as digital goods.
Amazon evidently believes they can. On Wednesday, Amazon joined Google and Mozilla in offering Web apps through its app store. There are now three major stores distributing Web apps using the online store model pioneered by Apple: Amazon Appstore, Chrome Web Store and Firefox Marketplace.
Amazon's reach is likely to further encourage developers to produce Web apps. Although each Web app store has slightly different requirements in terms of manifest files and APIs, it should be fairly easy to adapt any Web app so that it can be offered in each store.
While Web apps are widely used and are often paid for through subscriptions, they have not been accepted as software that one buys from a store, downloads and installs. The effort to change that is underway. Amazon has begun offering free Web apps, with an in-app purchase API as a source of revenue. Mozilla's Firefox Marketplace remains restricted to its developer-oriented Aurora browser and its newly released Firefox OS phones, but broad consumer availability should come soon. Google's Chrome Web Store has been open since May, 2010, and while the company hasn't released official sales figures, a spokeswoman says the store is seeing "millions of installs a day, among tens of thousands of apps from thousands of developers worldwide."
One reason that Web apps haven't sold well is that users don't see them the way they see native applications. Users have different expectations for interacting with native applications and with browser-based applications, particularly on mobile devices.
"One of the interesting problems we ran into with hosted apps was there's a perception issue," said Google engineering director Erik Kay in a phone interview. "Since they're really just websites with a manifest file and icon attached to them, when people launched them, they would be in the browser and they'd see a URL bar. In fact you could even launch them by navigating to a URL or using a bookmark. Even if the app was really interesting, even if it did something very different from what people are used to, we would often see comments in reviews saying, 'Oh, it's just a bookmark.' In other words, it's not an app."
Kay says that's a bit strange, given that Web apps like Google Maps or Google Docs are innovative and every bit the equal of native apps. Nonetheless, it's an issue Google hopes packaged apps will address. This isn't the first time Google has adapted its software to meet expected norms. Last year, for example, Chrome OS R19 gave Google's Web-based operating system windows that could be repositioned and an app launcher, to provide a more familiar computing experience.
Andreas Gal, VP of mobile engineering at Mozilla, suggests the distinction isn't so much between Web apps and native apps as it is between desktop expectations and mobile expectations. On mobile devices, said Gal in a phone interview, "you don't want to type URLs all the time, you want to touch something. We have to adopt this mobile touch model on the desktop."
In essence, the mobile revolution has trained users to expect and accept mobile modes of software acquisition and interaction. Google, which once pitched search as the command line for the world, now finds that touch is what sells. Why type a query or URL when you can load online content or services by tapping an app icon? Thus, Google's latest Chromebook, the Pixel, has a touchscreen and the company is investing in services that don't require typing, like Google Now and voice search. Mozilla has headed in a similar direction with its mobile Firefox OS.
"What you're seeing now, on desktop, the whole concept of applications on the desktop is going away," said Gal. "Who is thinking about new apps for the desktop these days, even for native?"
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