What is a Web-based mobile application or Web app? Heres expert opinion from the W3C

Of late, there has been some media hype around mobile applications. This has led to a somewhat distorted and narrow picture of mobile apps, which doesn’t help any business to make an informed choice about mobile strategy. If you believe mobile apps are the right path for your business, then you need to consider all smartphone platforms (including the 85 percent that are not Apple), if not all handsets (including the 97 percent that are not Apple). And you must consider browser-based mobile apps (Web apps) – as well as download (native) apps.

This is the second in our series of six app-related articles, interviews and guides. See also:
• It’s all about the design. Essential tips from user experience gurus
• Mobile applications: native v Web apps – what are the pros and cons?
• Do mobile apps deliver ROI?
• The open market approach: Q&A with GetJar, the No1 independent app store
• How museums bring collections to life with augmented reality

You don’t read much in the press about Web-apps today (compared to media coverage of native apps), leading mobiThinking to assume that not much is known about Web apps outside techie circles, and to the suspicion that even some of those may struggle to articulate to the marketing department exactly where mobile Web ends and Web app begins. So we approached the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for some assistance. The W3C is the authority that’s driving the standards behind HTML5 – the new more mobile friendly version of the Web language – and all the associated standard interfaces that help, or will help, Web apps to do almost everything that gets people excited about download apps.

Web apps are not new – in fact Apple had a store for Web apps before it had the Apple App Store – but the media remains largely ignorant to their existence or massive potential. We’re still waiting for the analysts to start projecting massive growth for the Web app, but some analysts are already predicting the decline of the download app:

App stores aren’t going away: following the 2013 peak in demand, the number of downloads in 2015 will have decreased only seven or eight percent. But as our use of the mobile Internet evolves, demand will increasingly shift elsewhere. Why? The mobile Web is getting more and more sophisticated, so that more subscribers will use the functionality on mobile Web sites themselves rather than dedicated apps. We see two emerging trends: first, many applications (increasingly built on Web standards) will migrate from app stores to regular Web sites, and for some sites you won’t need an app at all. In addition, more and more popular applications will be preloaded on mobile devices. Social networking apps in particular will be pre-loaded on new products. Mark Beccue, ABI Research (May 2010)

mobiThinking hunted around for a good definition of native and Web app, and either found them too techie or too simplistic. This is mobiThinking’s first stab at a definition (with plenty borrowed from authorities such MMA and W3C), and we welcome your feedback. By the way, none of this is meant to be a comparison of the various attributes of each type of app (for that see • Mobile applications: native v Web apps) and mobiThinking acknowledges that there may be a trade off today between having a cutting-edge native app on a proprietary platform and having a slightly less advanced Web app that works on most handsets. This is meant as an introduction to Web apps.

What is a mobile app?

Mobile applications or apps are compact software programs that perform specific tasks for the mobile user. There are two types of mobile app:
1) The native app must be installed on the device; they either arrive pre-installed on the phone – these might include address book, calendar, calculator, games, maps and Web browser – or they can be downloaded from for free or a small fee from Web sites – today these sites are called app stores. Native apps are either written specifically for a type of handset – as many iPhone applications have been – so they can take more advantage of a phone’s functions, or as Java applications – this was the norm with download apps until recently – to run on many handsets.
2) The Web app resides on server and is accessed via the Internet. It performs specified tasks – potentially all the same ones as a native application – for the mobile user, usually by downloading part of the application to the device for local processing each time it is used. The software is written as Web pages in HTML and CSS, with the interactive parts in Java. This means that the same application can be used by most devices that can surf the Web (regardless of the brand of phone).

It is much easier for the mobile user to conceptualize what this means in practice with the download app: click (pay) – download – install – click on icon – run. With the Web app it’s not so easy: you visit the mobile site and it does things for you – isn’t that just a mobile site? In the real world this shouldn’t matter, but the world has become obsessed by apps – partly due to the awesome power of the Apple marketing machine and some pretty ignorant journalism. Consumers on their PC will just play a game, music or video or update their social networking page; it might be installed locally, via disk or download or accessed via the Web, but no one considers if it is an application or not. On mobile, the same consumers want – or marketing people think consumers want, or have convinced them they want – apps. It’s all about the packaging (more on this later).

What is a mobile Web app?

This is how mobiThinking came to ask W3C expert Dominique Hazael-Massieux activity lead for the W3C’s Mobile Web Initiative, to explain when a useful mobile Web site became a useful mobile Web app. He points out that this is his opinion and suggests that other experts might give different answers.

mT: Where is the boundary between mobile Web site/content and mobile Web app i.e. in layman’s terms.
DHM: I don’t think the boundaries are well-defined at all; I think originally, the word applications started to be applied to Web sites that provided advanced user interactions and capabilities that used to be available only through installable software (à la Google Docs).

mT: Are mobile search engines, Web email, mobile portals and social networks in their generic form mobile Web apps?
DHM: One thing that makes Web sites look more like applications (in my view) is when they are self-contained, i.e. when you don’t move out of their controlled space (or as little as possible).
Under that perspective, I wouldn’t generally call a search engine or a portal a Web app, but social networks and Web mail are much more likely to fit that constraint.

mT: If these sites are personalized, i.e. they remember my location, load my preferences, does that make them Web apps?
DHM: Personalization does not necessarily make a Web site an application; after all, most traditional applications are only personalized as far as they are configurable, and some are not at all. (While not a defining factor, personalization is often a major feature of any Web app – this can make them much more powerful than traditional applications.)

mT: How about if I download a mobile site launcher to my handset’s start page? (Are these any more than a bookmark?)
DHM: Technically, they’re exactly a bookmark; practically, as a user, if you see something among your list of applications, and if it looks like an application when you start it, then you’ll perceive it as an application, no matter whether it’s on the Web or not.

mT: Does it change if I download a widget? (What’s your definition of a widget?)
DHM: There are many definitions of a widget; but the W3C regards a widget as a packaged/downloadable/installable Web application; as such, it’s closer to a traditional app than a Web app; but like a Web app uses HTML/CSS/JavaScript and access to the network as a primary feature.

mT: OK, so when do mobile sites become mobile Web apps? Or is it just a technical difference that isn’t immediately obvious unless you look under the hood?
DHM: I think they become a Web app when the developer presents them that way, and the user buys into that view. In terms of what makes that story more credible, here are a few (semi-random) parameters:
• Self-contained (keep you in their controlled space as much as they can);
• Rich/interactive user interface, possibly mimicking the native user interface (UI) of the device;
• Using advanced device capabilities (geolocation, camera integration, etc.) and other technologies being developed by the Device APIs and Policy Working Group;
• Action oriented (rather than information oriented) – a tool more than a book;
• Not relying heavily on, or hiding when possible, the browser chrome (back button, reload button, URL bar).
• Working off-line (e.g. using HTML5 ApplicationCache, localStorage, and indexed database)
There are probably more of these, and, of course, not all Web apps fit all these parameters; but what most people consider Web apps will fit at least some of these.

mT: Can Web apps do geolocation and camera integration today?
DHM: Geolocation yes, through the Geolocation API. This already works on the iPhone, Android browser, Opera 10.6, Firefox, etc.
Camera integration is not quite there yet, although Android has some early implementations of one of the specs W3C is working on. We’re looking also at a more general API for camera/microphone interaction, but it’s not quite deployed yet.

mT: What are the best examples of Web apps, according to this definition?
DHM: GMail and Facebook are the poster children of the mobile Web app, but you could easily add a large number of Google services (e.g. maps), a large number of mobile-optimized newspapers sites, yellow pages services etc.
I’ve been working on a mobile Web app for W3C as well: the W3C Cheatsheet.

It’s all about packaging

So if you are still wondering if you can market a Web app to your customers as easily as a download app, just look to the top application on GetJar – which claims to be second largest app store after Apple: it is Facebook, with 77 million downloads at the time of writing (up 4 million since we did this interview with GetJar 10 days ago). This download introduces an icon to your handset startpage that hyperlinks straight to the Facebook on the Web.

Also it’s worth noting that many native apps on Apple’s App Store may be Web apps dressed in native clothing. This is a sort of hybrid app that is written in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but is downloaded and resides on the handset and is able to tap into native functions of the phone. Examples provided by the German mobile agency CLANMO include apps for Lufthansa, Europcar and RTL.
Tools such as Nitobi’s open source PhoneGap also help Web developers to access popular mobile device features, such as camera, GPS and the accelerometer (detects movement of phone to e.g. steer in a driving game or orientate augmented reality applications) without having to write full applications.

P.S. (18-08-10) Thanks to Tam Hanna from TamsBada – the Samsung Bada blog for including this post in the latest Carnival of the Mobilists, a weekly roundup of the best in mobile and wireless blogs.

Further reading on mobile apps
• It’s all about the design. Essential tips from user experience gurus
• Mobile applications: native v Web apps – what are the pros and cons?
• Do mobile apps deliver ROI?
• The open market approach: Q&A with GetJar, the No1 independent app store

And don’t miss:

• Guide to mobile agencies
• Guide to mobile industry awards
• Guide to mobile ad networks
• Compendium of global mobile stats
• The insiders’ guides to world’s greatest markets
• Conferences & awards for mobile marketers, with offers
• The big page of essential links

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