22/Aug/2014 - Last News Update: 16:02

The web strikes back

Category: Technology

Published: 12th Jul 2011 09:13:54

You only have to look to the Oxford English Dictionary to see how much apps have become part of our day-to-day existence.

The word sits among others that define key technology in the modern world. Words like wiki, LOL, or the verb "to Google".

And if you do not have a dictionary to hand, there is, naturally, an app for that.

In just three years, Apple proclaimed last week, it has served up 15 billion apps through its online store.

With a sizeable revenue cut of paid programmes, it has become the goose that laid the golden egg for Steve Jobs.

And although Apple did not invent the smartphone application, its system has defined the user experience. iOS apps are simplicity at every turn - payment, installation and use.

Others have followed-suit, with great success. Android Market passed three billion downloads in May.

But after a period of rapid growth, native smartphone apps are facing a fight for survival.

That threat comes from web apps - software that runs in a browser rather than being downloaded and installed on the device's operating system.

Mubaloo, one of the UK's biggest mobile app developers, estimates that requests from clients for web apps has doubled in recent months - enough to make them the third big player in app development.

"We're probably doing iPhone, Android and web apps all about the same at the moment," said the company's founder Mark Mason.

"Those are the three platforms. We see Blackberry slowly dying a death, and we see Windows probably growing to be the fourth player."

The reason for that is simple - developing web apps solves several headaches.

Firstly, like the regular internet, a good web app can be made to adapt to a wide variety of devices rather than forcing the developer to create different products for each platform - be it iPhone or Android, smartphone or tablet.

Developer Oli Christie explains the economics of apps.

Secondly, by circumventing the strict guidelines associated with official stores, Mr Mason's clients can have exactly what they want, and can say for certain when it will be ready for the public.

Should any changes need to be made once the app is live, they can be made instantly, rather than wait several days for approval.

And then there's the matter of money.

Put an app in the App Store and 30% of each sale goes to Apple. Android takes the same, but the cash goes to payment processors and mobile carriers.

Microsoft and BlackBerry also get a cut of what sells in their stores.

Web apps offer developers the chance to cut out the middle man.

If that was not enough of an incentive to fly solo, in February of this year, Apple announced that it would also be taking 30% of revenue from in-app subscription payments.

It is that levy which may have proved be the final straw for cash-strapped publishers relying on a lucrative digital strategy to keep operations moving.

The first major player to adopt a web-apped approach to mobile subscribers was the Financial Times (FT). In June, the newspaper released its debut web app. Since launch it has attracted 200,000 users.

FT bosses have said subsequently that future app development will be focused on web platforms rather than native.

"The main factors on our mind when we launched app.ft.com were that it just isn't practical to maintain separate development for each individual technology platform," Stephen Pinches, the FT's group product manager for emerging technologies, told the BBC.

"It's unwieldy and ultimately unsustainable. We are planning to push our web app out to multiple platforms this year: Android, PlayBook, WebOS and others, and this really is the most logical and strategic approach."

Key improvements in smartphones' ability to power staple web components mean the FT web app does almost everything the company would expect from a downloaded app - including offline reading.

"The developments that have made this happen really are mostly to do with the way the hardware and the software on a phone play together," Mr Pinches continued.

"We now have much faster implementations of core web technologies such as JavaScript combined with much better hardware acceleration from the device itself."

There are still limitations, however. Web apps, for the time being at least, have less access to in-built functions that many popular native apps utilise, such as the compass, accelerometer or camera.

"On iOS devices particularly," Mr Pinches continues, "there are limitations as to how much data you can store in an app. It is capped at 50MB, and you have to explicitly ask the user for the space.

"This means we have to be smart about what we store, but limitations like this can be very good for developers as they force discipline and good design."

Technology aside, by far the most pressing hurdle facing web apps is one of discoverability.

The main factors on our mind when we launched app.ft.com were that it just isn't practical to maintain separate It's unwieldy and ultimately unsustainable.”

On all the market leading smart phones, a ready-made store for downloading apps is available to users from the word go. For web apps, there is a reliance on the user to consciously go to a web address.

In an industry that typically relies on recommendations and algorithmic indexing, this is a problem.

As the most widely read business newspaper in the UK, the FT may not have a problem getting its URL to the audience - but smaller operations without advertising budgets will struggle.

Teck Chia, a San Francisco-based developer, thinks he has the solution to this problem with his product, OpenAppMkt.com - a store for web apps.

"We identified two major problems for web apps on mobile," he told the BBC.

"One is discovery, and the other is the easy way to monetize their apps. Both of which were very well supported on the native platforms, but nothing of that sort exists on the open web for mobile."

To all intents and purpose, OpenAppMkt is just like any other app store.

"From the user's point of view, they see us as an alternative app store where they can discover apps that are not found in the Apple app store or Android Market.

"We support paid apps - and the way that people buy apps is very similar to the way they do it on the native app stores. They fill in a credit card once, and after that it's a one click process."

Of the revenue generated, Mr Chia's business takes a 20% share. In-app payments or subscriptions are not shared.

The site, which launched less than a year ago, has served up over one million app downloads, with an average of over 100,000 downloads a month.

Mr Chia concede that the overwhelming majority of apps downloaded are free - and this could pose problems in the long run.

"Every day we sell a few apps here and there - but there are not a lot of good quality paid apps yet."

When asked by the BBC, Apple declined to offer any comment for this article. But its strategy seems fairly solid: the native app is king.

Yet even in Cupertino it has not always been that way.

"When they first launched the iPhone it was all web apps, web apps, web apps!" Stuart Miles from UK-based Pocket-lint.com recalls.

"But then when they launched the iPhone 3G, it was 'you don't want web apps, they're rubbish!

"You want native apps so then we can charge you for them... and we'll take 30%"

For now, that's a business model that works, and makes a lot money.

A third may be a sizeable slice of the developer's revenue, but it gives them access to the biggest pie around - for now.

But on an internet which was built on the spirit of openness and free content, the modest yet solid emergence of the web app as a low cost, featured-filled alternative is a sign that both users and developers may be drifting away from the walled-garden of mobile apps in search of a more liberated experience.

BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2011. The web strikes back [Online] (Updated 12th Jul 2011)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/169483/The-web-strikes-back [Accessed 22nd Aug 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Employee admits defrauding Department for Social Development

    A woman has pleaded guilty to defrauding her Department for Social Development employers out of £10,000.
  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Channel 4 boss urges caution over US buyouts

    Allowing sectors of the UK TV industry to be bought up by US media companies poses a risk to the UK's tradition of innovation and risk-taking, the head of Channel 4 has suggested.
  • Aberystwyth scientist helps find life 800m under ice

    A scientist from Aberystwyth University was part of a team that helped discover tiny signs of life 800m beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.
  • Gloucestershire captain Michael Klinger suffers broken arm

    Gloucestershire captain Michael Klinger has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a broken arm.
  • Family tribute to killed Newbury woman Sandra Talman

    The family of a woman found dead in her home has paid tribute to her.