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The Blurred Line Between App and Web

Oct 19 '16
web apps

In July of 2008, Apple released its iTunes App Store, bringing mobile apps to the masses. It was a killer feature. Suddenly, the iPhone went from a great smartphone to a great, well, whatever you wanted it to be. The mobile web was still in its infancy during this time. Data speeds were slow, libraries and codebases were designed mostly with desktops in mind, and mobile browsers left a bit to be desired. Consuming information from an app was a much more seamless way to use your smartphone.

But technology always advances. As the world has moved more and more towards “always-on”, instant gratification, the mobile web has evolved in a big way. Safari and Chrome on mobile are nearly as fast as their desktop counterparts and offer full support for all the latest CSS properties, and even come with built-in developer tools to make creating them easier. Front end best practices include a “mobile-first” approach, as mobile devices now account for a majority of web traffic. All of this has paved the way for a fast, responsive mobile web that is capable of offering an app-like experience without the need to enter the app store ever. Who would download a separate app for each of their favorite stores or content providers when their mobile web pages are so good?

A great example of this trend can be seen in Google’s announcement of its new “instant apps” feature for Android, introduced at Google IO this past May. Instant apps allow for special URLs that lead not to a web page displayed in a browser, but a custom, stripped-down native app. Upon click, the device downloads the barebones portions of the app it needs to run, and continues to make HTTP requests as the user navigates, much like a web browser. The difference is that with the browser removed from the equation, many of the woes of the mobile web are eliminated. Gone are annoying browser quirks and jerky scrolling. The native app interfaces directly with the device’s hardware, providing the most seamless experience possible without having to download apps.

Are we headed towards an app-less future? Probably not, as certain things, like games and camera-based apps, need to be contained in a more controlled, app-like environment. However, it will be very interesting to see how the app/web trend continues. A better, faster mobile web benefits everyone, and Third & Grove’s fanatical front end coding standards strive to continue that trend.