The iOS App Store Runs on Web OS

Written by Jason Grigsby on

The Web OS is already here… it’s just not what you thought it would be. Web technologies are currently powering content and interactions across multiple devices effectively turning the most popular native applications into Web browsers. The end result is a widely distributed and used Web-based operating system. Just not the one you imagined. — Luke Wroblewski

Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby is one of the co-founders of Cloud Four, Mobile Portland and Responsive Field Day. He is the author of Progressive Web Apps from A Book Apart. Follow him at @grigs.

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What about this screenshot leads you to believe that it’s WebOS? Not doubting, just not seeing.

Andy Matthews


@Andy: Not WebOS, Web OS. It’s officially the douchiest way possible to say that the app is rendering HTML.

The web as an operating system, not HP/Palm’s WebOS. The App Store is full of embedded webviews.

The screenshot shows the web page loading before CSS and JavaScript execute. I was on a slow network and things loaded so slowly that I could see tell tale signs that the iOS App Store was using an HTML page.

FWIW, iTunes does the same.

Okay so it’s not HP’s webOS you’re talking about, but webview’s used to render HTML pages within an app (coined by master Luke as “Web OS”). I would argue these are two very different things. If we’re being semantic about it, you’re not doing any Operating System (OS) operations within the app, rather, rendering content via an HTML page, and catching user interaction on the page to kick it back to the app. This is effectively how PhoneGap et al work.

I’ve used webviews to render content pages (generally scrollable content) because it’s much easier and you can achieve comparable results to native, albeit with less effort. It’s also a great way to distribute work across more web-oriented teams.

They probably use webviews on the appstore so they can scale the design across all their media (mobile browser, large screen browser and their native app). Nothing new here. But…

A tradeoff *can be* performance. The appstore app in particular has had a number of growing pains, especially around the 5.0 release when it would crash quite a bit on detail pages, or the screen shown above (hmm…). A number of social networking apps (like Oink) also used webviews to render content. They too had scaling issues when using webviews to render lots of image content, or if content was scrolled too quickly. This also resulted in crashes.

So much for trying to write a short post instead of my normal novels. Here is why I posted the screenshot:

1. I had a great screenshot of the App Store rendering HTML and wanted to put it somewhere others could reference. I thought about Flickr, but I don’t use it much anymore. I should probably post it there so I can put it under creative commons.
2. The fact Apple uses webviews in their own apps is interesting for two reasons.
A) I’ve heard people argue that no hybrid app has ever made money. That no app using webviews is popular. It is a religious belief that native is always better. The fact even Apple uses webviews in successful apps shows that Apple isn’t as religious as some of its fans.
B) People argue Apple isn’t interested in pushing the web forward, but Apple has a vested interest in improving browsers as it uses webviews in many areas.
3. Luke’s post about Web OS seems spot on to me. Many apps are site-specific apps. This gave me an excuse to point people to it.
4. Quoting Luke saved me from writing about it myself when all I originally wanted was to post a screenshot.

So much for being lazy and writing a short post. 🙂


FWIW Jason, your post made total sense to me and required no additional explanation. It’s immediately obvious what’s going on from your screenshot, and that Palm/HP wasn’t remotely near your brain when you typed it up. 🙂

I’ve seen this behaviour to a lesser extent quite often. Usually it’s in the form of a button background image not loading immediately or something.

What interests me is how Apple hooks native capability into their web views, such as launching that damned password dialog when you tap the “Install” button, for example.

How long do we think it will be before we start seeing branded, full-bleed “band” images behind the screens in the mobile version of iTunes, the way we do on the desktop?

Good find. I’ve run across those unstyled views as well but never thought to screenshot them. I think now that WebOS is dead, Web OS is a good way to describe hybrid apps (native apps that render content with HTML/CSS). At FreeRange we publish our news and magazine apps with this approach. We have found that when we tried to go all native, we ended up creating a poor man’s version of CSS anyway. We are now making great progress with this method and it has dramatically shortened our design process while increasing our layout and design options for our clients. The balance with performance is where to draw the line between native and web.

I’m sorry, but I tought everyone knew this long time ago..

Did it really take a CSS-less screenshot for people to realize that HTML was powering the App Store (and the iTunes Store, for that matter)?

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