Will the future of mobile apps be controlled by native apps, or web apps? Or will both share the spotlight?

Today, there's little doubt that native apps are winning the hearts and minds of consumers and developers alike. And for good reason: if you want a great experience that takes full advantage of the capabilities of today's most advanced mobile phones, you need a native app.

But efforts are underway to bring the functionality currently offered by platform-specific APIs to mobile web browsers.

Yesterday, Mozilla launched one such effort, WebAPI, which the organization behind Firefox describes simply as "an effort...to have consistent APIs that will work in all web browsers, no matter the operating system".

If Mozilla has its way WebAPI, developers will have a unified interface for accessing low-level device functionality, including the camera, accelerometer and filesystem. This, of course, would be huge.

Although there are nascent APIs for accessing low-level device functionality, most are device or platform-specific. A single API that works across devices, platforms and browsers would be huge.

Mozilla, of course, isn't interested in building one mobile API to rule them all simply because it's a nice idea. Mozilla has a vested interest in standards that will enable its Firefox browser to stay competitive as the web becomes increasingly mobile.

The organization's largest competitors, Microsoft, Google and Apple, all have their own mobile platforms, which in theory gives them a much stronger ability to integrate their respective browsers with the mobile devices that run their platforms.

Mozilla is the odd man out; it doesn't manufacture phones and it doesn't have a mobile operating system, so it's at risk of falling behind.

The question for Mozilla: will Microsoft, Google and Apple will embrace WebAPI? Right now, they probably don't have as much incentive as Mozilla to focus on the web browser, and even assuming they did, Mozilla's three to six month timeframe for implementing a standard, albeit basic, API for everything from the address book to accelerometer across all browsers on all devices is perhaps overly ambitious.

But this said, there's little doubt that eventually, the web browser on mobile devices will be more capable and prominent. Whether the result of something like WebAPI, or a hodgepodge of APIs and technologies, developers will increasingly be able to build robust web-based applications for mobile devices.

At that point, the 'web apps versus native apps' debate will be put to consumers, not pundits.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 August, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (1)

Yves Goulnik

Yves Goulnik, Digital strategy director at ZZZ

Another challenge for Mozilla that you didn't mention is the need to install Firefox on the smartphone. Similar to the situation with IE on the PC, and it just really became available if I'm not mistaken.

It's probably too early to tell how much penetration they will get, but I reckon the hurdles to by-passing the native browser are higher on the mobile.

An additional reason is the required synchronization, which is all but intuitive. I just did it on my iPhone when all I really wanted to do was test the mobile browser. This will likely put lots of people off, when this something handled transparently for Safari by iTunes.

almost 7 years ago

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