Yesterday I wrote a few thoughts on what’s happening with the web as we transition to mobile & tablet — in short, I think the web isn’t in great shape, and faces real challenges from app ecosystems from Google and Apple in particular.
A few people told me that I was being a little alarmist — that of course the web would win — open always wins. But that’s an ahistoric view, I think. The web appears to me to be an outlier, not the latest in the pattern. I think it’s actually very difficult to find any communications technology at all that didn’t close up around networks of distribution. Interesting debate, and I’m optimistic that we can get things to a more open situation, but I think it’s far from inevitable.
After I posted, I read Charles’ piece that took me to task a little bit, and then Ariel’s as well (although I think he wasn’t particularly writing about my post). They both essentially said: what’s winning is what users want. Users want speed, users want apps that they care about. They’re right, of course. What I was writing was more about why this is happening, why native is winning from a longer historical & industry view. I think that what I wrote is pretty compatible with what they wrote, though.
Charles’ point, is key: the web can only win when you give customers something that they want more than native apps can.
That’s easier said than done, of course — and I would argue that it’s impossible unless you do things asymmetrically.
What I mean is this: when you try to take one technology — any technology — and have it mimic another one — you’re starting from a tough place. Specifically, taking the technology of the web and making it look like a native app.
You’re always at a disadvantage — we can argue whether it’s possible to get to parity or not. I think it’s generally possible to get to parity in user experience + performance at any given time, but a fact of life is that the owners of the platform — the organization who ships the operating system — is always moving forward and will naturally advantage themselves — parity today means you’re behind tomorrow. More than that, though, once people have established a good way to do things (like getting apps from the app store instead of going to the web), parity doesn’t even really matter. Being as good as a native app isn’t really the point. You’ve got to be a LOT better than what exists.
The web was never really able to do this in a symmetric way with the desktop — web apps never really reached the same level of fit & finish. But what the web did that was specially is that it was incredibly, incredibly better in an asymmetric way to the desktop: it was connected to everyone. The network was an asymmetric entry point that made the performance of desktop apps seem sort of irrelevant. You could use them, but not with your friends. Not with your other apps. The web changed that.
So I am in full agreement with Charles’ post that you’ve got to build things that people want (although I’m not 100% persuaded that it’s always convenience, I think that’s a reasonable point of view) — so my guess is that for things to really open up again, we need to not look for HTML5 to be merely as good as native, but rather to let us do things that are qualitatively different.