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Why Apple’s Failure with iPhone Web Applications Doesn’t Matter

By Jason Grigsby

Published on July 23rd, 2009


Here is the story many people would like you to believe:

Apple told developers that the only way to build applications for the iPhone was to use web technology. Developers didn’t go for it so Apple eventually caved and created the native iPhone SDK.

Ergo, attempts like those by Google to make mobile web applications the centerpiece of a mobile strategy are doomed to fail.

Wrong! Apple’s failure with iPhone web applications does not matter when it comes to the future of mobile web applications.

Here’s why Apple’s experiment wasn’t a good test:

  • Apple’s web-only development wasn’t mobile — Not in any way. There was no access to geolocation, accelerometer, offline mode, or the camera. The only thing mobile was the fact you were constrained to a small screen.
  • Apple’s own apps weren’t built using web technology — “Do as we say not as we do” didn’t go over well with developers. If you’re going to make the argument, you need to lead by example like Palm has.
  • The Original iPhone was Slow — People have forgotten that the original iPhone only ran on the edge network. The iPhone OS has had two major releases that included performance optimizations. Javascript performance in the iPhone OS 3.0 is 3 times faster on the same hardware. And “iPhone 3GS Javascript performance blows away rivals and approaches MacBook speed.”
  • HTML 5 Capabilities were not available — In the time since Apple’s experiment, browsers have started to expose things like offline support and geolocation that are essential for mobile.

There are good arguments to be made for why mobile web applications may not succeed. I may not agree with them, but I can acknowledge their logic. And for a whole host of immersive applications like games, I can readily acknowledge that mobile web applications will likely never make sense.

But to use Apple’s flirtation with mobile web applications as the foundation for an argument that mobile web applications will never take off is akin to looking at the success of web browsers on WAP phones and arguing that iPhone users will never use their browser.


Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) said:

@ryanwi When to choose native or web is something I’ve been speaking a lot about lately.

Part of the reason I’ve started blogging again is because I want to get the material from my presentations onto “paper” so that I can reference it more easily.

In other words, expect a lot more on these questions in the days to come.

Ryan Williams said:

I agree that it’s way too early to give up on web apps. The reach of web is still a very powerful thing to have. I’m wondering though if web apps that take advantage of the device dependent features (like accelerometer and camera) would really be better off native? Where do you draw the line on what features of a particular handset to use in a mobile web app?