Phillip Smith
commentary

Much to my own surprise, I believe the "native app" for mobile is here to stay.

I happened to end up in a conversation with my old Web of Change friend, Andre Charland, last night. We haven’t spoken in a few months, and his first update to me was “Dude, …I work for Adobe now.”

To say that I was stunned is an understatement, but then I recalled seeing a headline yesterday about Adobe killing the mobile version of Flash and it all started to come into focus.

I haven’t been keeping up-to-date with Andre’s world – Nitobi and PhoneGap – which is why I hadn’t caught the announcement that they had been acquired by Adobe last month. Perhaps these are the two smartest decisions that Adobe has made in recent years: hiring one of the smartest people I know, Captain Ajax, and acquiring one of the most promising mobile platforms on the market.

Last June, when I started producing the first iteration of The Tyee’s mobile “app,” I sought out Andre’s advice on how to proceed. At the time, Phone Gap was relatively new, maybe a year old, and still working on Windows and Blackberry support. The idea of taking an HTML5 and JavaScript “app,” wrapping & compiling it, and making it available on in the Apple App Store and Android market was also new and not without a fair amount of risk.

There was even some risk in the nascent HTML5 + JavaScript approach on its own at that time. The two frameworks that appeared to be leading the pack, jQuery Mobile and Sencha Touch, were either in alpha or in a pre-1.0 release state.

Nonetheless, we took the risk, and dived in with Sencha Touch. And now we are just closing in on the release of a more streamlined, and basic, mobile version of the site.

Today, I read that the “native app” is going the way of the CD-ROM, but – to my own surprise – I’m ready to go in the other direction. In my mind, I want to say I had the same experience and share the same confidence as mndaily.com’s Kevin Schaul, who writes “‘App’ is a buzzword, but the only app that will matter is the browser.” But my gut and practicality has me more convinced of the permanent, and necessary, role of the native app.

Kevin writes that “custom layouts are a breeze” in these mobile-Web frameworks, and – no doubt – new initiatives like Yahoo’s Coctails will push the envelope even further.

This is all great stuff. But it is not like Apple and Android are sitting on their hands and not innovating. Each release of Xcode and the iOS SDK advances the field of native app development by considerable measures. If you think that Sencha or jQuery Mobile provide a lot of UI widgets, you probably haven’t tried building a basic iOS app – the phrase “batteries included” doesn’t even scratch the surface. And I’m not personally a Java programmer, but there are certainly a lot of them out there, and that makes Android a pretty appealing platform too.

I take Kevin’s point that, from the perspective of a daily news operation, the benefit of diving into native apps before sorting out the more obvious concerns – a mobile version of the site, for example – may not be the right strategy. However, my feelings today, after exploring in two Web-first mobile directions this past year, and also experiencing the state-of-the-art of responsive & responsible news sites, is that there are still a lot of good reasons to think about native apps right now, and probably will be for some time to come.

The most obvious reason is the money. Until someone cracks that nut, I think the future of the native app is quite secure. (Flash on the other hand, is probably heading in the direction of the CD-ROM.)

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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