Improving, touch-enabled Web won't bring down app stores

Touch-optimized Web apps will improve user experience and lure some developers away from producing native apps, but industry watchers say relationship between both will ultimately be complementary.

The integration of touch-optimized capabilities into Web sites and the reach of the Internet have an industry watcher predicting that the dominant "app store" for most mobile users will once again be the World Wide Web, but others disagree, saying that native and Web apps both have a role to play in the market.

According to research by Taptu, a touch-focused mobile search company, the growth of mobile touch-friendly Web sites is outstripping that of Apple's popular App Store. It stated in a May 12 blog post that there are currently 440,010 "Web sites with touch-friendly content", which has grown annually by 232 percent. Comparatively, Apple currently stocks 185,000 apps in its App Store, at a growth rate of 144 percent over the year before.

Taptu CEO Steve Ives explained in an e-mail to ZDNet Asia the distinction his company makes between Web apps and touch-friendly Web sites--Web apps are built to operate like native apps but are accessible via a URL and are usually written with a specific task in mind. Touch-friendly Web sites, on the other hand, are mobile sites which employ touch-optimized user interfaces (UI), he said.

Nonetheless, he expects to see the "majority of developers" creating programs for these mobile Web categories in the next 24 months. The company had earlier predicted in its blog post that there would be 1.1 million touch-enabled Web sites by end 2010.

"It's simple economics. For the greatest reach, you need to be using the Web and not be tethered to a certain operating system (OS) or app store," said Ives.

Taptu expects touch-optimized mobile Web sites and Web apps to supersede the demand for programs published in dedicated app stores such as those run by Apple and Google, he said.

It's the browser, too
However, another industry watcher, Opera Software, has a slightly different take on the matter.

Andreas Bovens, group leader of developer relations at Opera told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that the improving mobile browser, and not just touch capabilities, is increasingly enticing users to perform tasks on Web sites rather than on native apps.

"It is worth pointing out that the recent generation of mobile browsers has a number of zooming, link selection and text-wrap tricks that make it really easy to browse 'normal' Web pages as well as mobile optimized, touch-friendly Web sites. This is the case for touch screen phones as well as non-touch screen ones such as the BlackBerry," he added.

Bovens did acknowledge the benefits of writing programs for the Web though. He noted that using Web technologies to build a mobile optimized, touch-friendly app allows for a "write-once-run-anywhere scenario", which means developers will not have to develop one application for various platforms using different programming languages and software developer kits (SDKs).

As such, improving Web standards will see some developers be lured away from developing software for dedicated app store environments and work on creating for the Internet instead, said the Opera executive.

"This is definitely the case for text- and image-based sites, [and] as JavaScript engines are getting faster and mobile processors more powerful, users can expect more games and other advanced Web applications too," noted Bovens.

Native apps to improve Web experience
Efforts to standardize APIs (application programming interfaces) across devices will also allow Web apps and widgets to use device features such as the built-in global positioning system (GPS) chip and accelerometer, which were previously only available to native apps, said Bovens.

That said, he thinks the relationship between Web and native apps can be "complementary". He said that as Web technologies evolve and become a "viable competitor" to native apps, there are still some things that can only be done in native code. Citing the example of the company's Opera Mini iPhone application, he said that this app "would not be possible" with Web standards.

Singapore-based Web designer and developer, Andy Croll, concurred. He said that while the Web is "already the lowest common denominator" for mobile devices to access, the user experience of an app specifically designed for a device is still better than that of apps found online.

He did go on to point out that there will be an increasing "blurring of lines" between native and Web apps, though, as developers pick up tips from the former when creating programs for mobile browsers.

"Also, as the power of the mobile devices improves, the performance of the browsers will increase, potentially narrowing the performance gap," said Croll. "However, the [performance] of native apps will continue to improve as well."


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