History of mobile app development

“Forget being in love with the open web and all that touchy-feely stuff.”

Jay Sullivan is Mozilla’s vice president of products, and for a spokesperson of one of the open web’s dearest darlings, he’s on a tear.

“If you want to have a variety of mobile apps, it gets expensive… that’s a lot of apps to build, ” he told VentureBeat in a recent interview.

Sullivan is making a strong case against building native apps and for the mobile web as the new platform to (literally) end all platforms.

Now, a number of developments make his words especially timely. Yahoo has just announced Yahoo Cocktails, a set of tools for developers to use that make web apps look and behave more like native apps. Mozilla is working on tools to help developers sell web-based apps to mobile device users, enabling them to make profits just as developers in the iTunes App Store or Android Market can now do.

Even Adobe is scrapping Flash for mobile phones and pinning its hopes on HTML 5 for the mobile web. “HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively, ” wrote Danny Winokur, Adobe VP and General Manager of Interactive Development.

“This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.”

It looks like mobile apps may be headed the same direction as multimedia CD-ROMs did a decade ago. Sadly for mobile apps, they don’t even have a useful second life as drink coasters.

But parties on the other side of the fence say it’s too soon to play Taps for apps. App advocates say mobile web enthusiasts are indulging in pipe dreams while the rest of the world is still working on proprietary technology stacks that do, now, what HTML5 has so far failed to deliver. Even if they admit that building for the mobile web will eventually be cheaper, faster and easier, it’s at least few years away from reality.

In the Mozilla Foundation’s new offices overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Sullivan — an unapologetic HTML5 advocate — sits in a conference room and rapidly deconstructs the assumption that to get your software onto a mobile phone you have to build a native application.

First, he explains the obvious: Each mobile ecosystem has its own technology stack, its own operating system and programming language. That means developing apps requires a different skill set and a separate development process for each ecosystem.

At the end of the day, building a mobile web app instead of two or three or four native apps just makes more economic sense. “HTML5 is less expensive, ” he says. “There’s always some stuff around the edges that won’t work perfectly, but compared to writing in seven different languages, it works.”

For developers, it’s technologically more manageable to build one mobile web app than a half-dozen or even just two native apps. And given the state of mobile web standards, we’re quickly approaching a point where end users can’t tell the difference between the two. All that’s really left is a business model for mobile web apps, Sullivan contends.

“When the web offers a more easy to access business ecosystem to developers, it will become more attractive.”

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