To read the PR about the Financial Times, you would have thought they had just invented the Web App. Yet as with so many “new” inventions (“AJAX”, “Cloud”…), the FT is merely leveraging technology that has been around for years. There is some newsworthy relevance to it, as they do represent a minority in the news industry and they apparently did build a decent app; so on balance, just like with AJAX and the Cloud, it is so inspiring to see the technology succeed that the late adopters painting themselves as innovators are forgiven.
Web Apps for devices such as the iPhone have been around since the iPhone itself: all the initial apps available for the iPhone were in fact Web Apps. Part of the initial PR for the iPhone was around just such an approach to applications, and Apple still provides core developer support that help truly innovative companies like Codify Design build such applications.
Apple is in the strange position of advancing both a closed, proprietary system with iOS, while simultaneously advancing web standards by using WebKit and HTML5. When a company like Google or Facebook use the Web App approach, it can look like a fundamental assault on iOS itself (and this was dramatized as such 2 years ago with Google, and last week with Facebook). Yet it would seem that Apple has gone far enough with support for standards that there is no turning back. Web Apps appear to be here to stay.
We at Silicon Publishing have seen great interest in tablet forms of everything we do, and while there are applications where native apps shine, our general philosophy is to use the Web App approach unless a native app has a really compelling benefit.
Certainly Web Apps are very cool in certain cases: a business distributing content to their internal staff, informational content distributed to consumers, etc. Tim Berners-Lee has a point about the pitfalls of the “walled garden” yet we still find ourselves building native iOS apps as well and can’t argue with those who think they need them.
We have two main products at Silicon Publishing: Silicon Paginator, which spews forth content from data sources, and Silicon Designer, which lets users edit documents online. Both are evolving to fully support tablets, with relatively simple extensions of Paginator (leveraging the thoughtful work of Codify Design who help us with this) rendering powerful output to tablets, while it is taking heavy work to define the Designer interface for tablets, and completion of that is a ways off. Editing/authoring is exponentially more involved than publishing.
The problem with tablet UI for editing is pretty much identical whether you are building a Web App or a native app… tablets are a very different UI, and working without a mouse makes, for example, text selection something of a UI challenge, one that even Apple hasn’t solved really well yet. Take editing inline formats, please (making a single word bold). I don’t believe there exists an elegant interface for that, currently. We’re working on it, and we’re poised to steal the best work of whoever gets it right.
It isn’t trivial to make Web Apps work. While there are tools that are improving, they are just starting to evolve, and to make things work is alot like any other new technology, you have to surf around to find nuggets of information to get past the initial obstacles.