Google, Mozilla Lead Web's Mobile Renaissance

Google and Mozilla are blurring the distinction between Web apps and native apps. That could have profound implications for Apple and Microsoft.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

August 7, 2013

9 Min Read

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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.

Google is preparing to update its Chrome browser to support packaged apps, Web apps that look and behave like native apps. The company began offering users of the developer version of Chrome access to packaged apps through its Chrome Web Store in May. Last month, Google enhanced packaged apps with several new APIs.

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.

[ Learn more about Google's plan for packaged Web apps. Read Google Chrome Apps Escape Browser. ]

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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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?"

Welcome to the Web's mobile renaissance.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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