Is the Death of the Native App Near?

The Google I/O conference was kind of a big deal this year. Not only was Android L introduced, it was the first introduction of a profound idea that Google is clearly tackling: blending native mobile apps with web-based user experience and navigation.

The company is expanding its App Indexing API to all Android apps. Before, Google only worked with selected companies. Romain Dillet, TechCrunch writer, explains:

“Imagine for a second what Android L will look like. You turn on your phone, search for something in Google using voice search on your home screen. It launches Chrome. You tap on the first search result, it launches a native app. You switch apps to read this article you found earlier in Chrome. Back, and forth, and back, and forth between the web and native apps. After a while, you won’t even notice if you’re on the web or in a native app.”

Could it be the beginning of the end of native applications as we know it?

Even though Google’s announcement is more about native and web apps talking to each other than completely eliminating native apps, we consider the question and present both arguments: it is definitely a possibility that native apps will die out, but there are limitations. In this blog post, we will give both sides to this native application story, so you can decide for yourself.

Opinion 1: It’s the end of the app as we know it.

Google has always been a web developer. It’s their bread and butter so to speak. The web is where they make their money and they want consumers to spend the most time on it.

By blurring the lines between native apps and web apps, Google wants to get users comfortable to a concept of “everything delivered over the web”. Perhaps more importantly, they want to get developers writing code for users who expect everything delivered over the web.

By eliminating the user’s perception of what “should be” a native app vs a web app, they can free up developers to leverage advanced scripting techniques, HTML5, WebSockets, and anything else to push high-performance interactive apps through a web page. You can think of Google App Indexing via the search engine as the first step towards a new unified delivery and marketing method for app developers.

The future of Google is in web apps. Here’s how Brian Kennish, formerly an engineer at Google and now something of a punk-rock privacy-protecting developer, put it in a recent email: “One word: distribution. There are 2 billion web users versus 50 million iOS users.”

Google has a presence throughout the technology and delivery stack. They are continually improving JavaScript, the OS, web standards, and programming skills to provide support for building richer apps delivered over the web. And by all means, if any company were to attack the native and web application endeavor it would be Google. After all, they have the talent, resources and infrastructure to tackle this challenge.

Closing argument: Every app is a connected app. With the right coding skills, technology platforms, development languages, and delivery infrastructure everything should be delivered over the web. That’s the direction Google is pushing.

Opinion 2: [Native] Apps will survive.

This hasn’t been the first time tech giants have tackled the native and web application challenge. Remember Palm’s WebOS or Mozilla’s Firefox OS? They and others before them all failed for multiple reasons, ranging from chips that weren’t powerful enough, to poor web developer talent, to general immaturity in the app ecosystem.

As technology advances there is always a dance between improvements in storage (making it cheap to store native apps and information), and improvements in bandwidth (making it cheap to download apps and information on the fly). It’s like a giant pendulum of technological history that slowly sways between one extreme (carry a terabyte in your pocket!) to the other (download a Blu-ray Disc in seconds!). We’ll never settle on one or the other.

Besides, new hardware innovations will certainly require native interfaces to access specific functionality, to take advantage of hardware-specific performance enhancements, or to enforce security requirements. So the native app can’t ever really go away.

Sure – some types of apps lend themselves well to web-based delivery. For example, a publishing app relies less on native controls or native integration, making it easy to deliver a rich, interactive user experience over the web. However, a gaming application relies heavily on the native controls of a specific mobile platform to deliver an immersive gaming experience. Apps like that will be impossible to translate into a purely web-based delivery model.

Closing argument: As long as there is a competitive market for devices and applications, developers will want to deliver unique experiences that leverage native device capabilities. Because of that, native apps will never go away.

We’ll Be Watching

We see what Google is doing. And it’s smart.

There’s a new term being introduced in the tech world called “One Web.” The idea is that there is no longer a distinction between device, web, mobile and desktop. They are all becoming more and more the same as technology develops. Ultimately, the goal is to get to that perfect end user experience where, on any device, in any environment, users get the same amazing experience.

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  1. July 17, 2014
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