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As iPhone’s App Store Swells, Developers Look to Web Apps for a Fast & Friendly Alternative

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A side by look at two mobile Twitter clients: Hahalo, at left, is web based while TweetDeck is a native app.
A look at two mobile Twitter clients: Hahalo (left) is web-based while TweetDeck is a native app.

With more than 100,000 apps and growing in the iPhone App Store, a lot of attention is being paid to creating iPhone web apps instead of iPhone native apps in order to decrease development time.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Native apps are actual programs that you download and install from the App Store. iPhone web apps are really just websites, but highly optimized to run in the Mobile Safari web browser on the iPhone.

Web apps can’t take advantage of all the bells and whistles that native apps can, such as using the accelerometer or the camera, but they can still do some pretty amazing things.

Advantages to web apps include the following:

  • Development time can be shorter as web apps are built using standard web technologies (HTML, CSS, Javascript, and any number of server-side technologies)
  • When you finish building a web app, you just launch it; there’s no App Store submission and approval process to get bogged down with
  • When you want to update a web app, you just update it; again, no App Store

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Disadvantages include:

  • Limited access to the iPhone hardware
  • Not quite as responsive user interface; slower scrolling, animated transitions and loading of screens
  • Very few e-commerce options, and no ability to utilize the App Store e-commerce engine
  • Do not work reliably cross-platform with other phones (such as Blackberry or Android)

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As John Gruber points out on his Daring Fireball blog, Apple has actually addressed some of the UI issues (most notably the slower scrolling) via its PastryKit Javascript framework. Apple has yet to release this framework publicly, but it does prove that some web app limitations can be overcome.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that marketers should consider iPhone web apps alongside native apps when you’re considering iPhone development. Web apps aren’t always appropriate, and they may not be as slick as native apps, but they’re definitely a great alternative if the concept is a good fit.

Showtime’s new iPhone app went the web route — it’s a simple app, but nicely done, and it didn’t need to be approved by the App Store. Point your iPhone here: http://app.showtime-app.com/.

An example of a more complex iPhone web app is Hahlo, a Twitter client. Point your iPhone at: http://hahlo.com/ (the first time you use it,Twitter.com will ask you to “allow” it).

Finally, Apple maintains a directory of more than 4,000 web apps at http://www.apple.com/webapps/.

-Benny Simon, SVP of Technology, 360i Design & Development Group