Web-apps vs Native-apps

There is a world, a nerdy world occupied by people living in a private bubble called "IT". In this world "new" things are created, things that "ordinary" people couldn't care less about until they are publicized and popularized. Things like Facebook, Twitter, the iPad, gMail, the AppStore and the Internet are things created by the people in this nerdy world. Right now an imagined war is raging in this world, a war between the "by god we will cram everything into a browser" people and the "browsers are cool but slow" people. I'm of course talking about web-apps vs native-apps, or Google vs Apple as some have come to believe. So, is there a war? And who's winning?

When contemplating the differences inherently present in the not so wide crevasse between web-apps and native apps there are four main areas I want to examine:

  1. Performance
  2. Accessibility
  3. Data persistence and security
  4. The browser

The first thing that springs to mind when taking the classical approach to this age long tiresome debate is the issue of performance. Native apps perform better than web-apps, hence the end user gets a smoother and better experience when using the app. This is true, in most cases. However, performance is more than just the smoothness of animations and the speed of which data is read. Consider the process of installing Adobe Photoshop on your trusty Windows laptop, then activating it, then figuring out how to navigate the god awful interface just to adjust the contrast of an image. Compare that workflow to opening the image with Picnik and the choice is pretty clear. Web-apps rule! But, wait. What if you want to edit the movie you shot during the holiday with your FlipMino HD, can you do that in a web-app? Well, sort of, with services like JayCut and the likes. However, you will get a much better result using iMovie, which is already on you Mac. What about Skype, code compiling, 3D games and so on..? To make a long story short, native apps will outperform web-apps when it comes to pure performance and as long as web-apps are based on a document oriented language (HTML). It will always be a catchup game for web-apps. But, web-apps have another kind of performance advantage, accessibility.

A web-app is always up to date, most of them are easy to use, requires no installation and can be used from almost any computer. That is, except when you're not connected to a network. A statement with modifications indeed, some web-apps do work when in offline mode as well, however a pure offline web-app would be pretty pointless. Consider Google Docs versus Microsoft Office. If you're an author (a brave one) you might want to use MS Word, or if you need some crazy ass pivot tables or other super advanced stuff you would perhaps also need MS Excel. However if you just want to calculate stuff, create and produce formatted text, spreadsheets and presentations, Google Docs is far superior to MS Office. Oh, have you tried to collaborate in real time on a MS Word document, doesn't work does it?! Also, Google Docs keeps your documents on the server so you can access them from anywhere and they are always backed up. Does it work offline, well, not yet.

Data persistence and security
With a native-app your data is always available to you, online or offline, provided that your computer is with you of course, or that you have synced the data to the cloud. What happens if (God forbid) your house (containing your laptop) is leveled by aliens? Where did all your native-app data go? It's history! Your e-mail and Google Docs data is safe at Google. That is, if you are okay with Google searching through your e-mails and documents in order to give you targeted advertisements? And what happens if, say you have saved all your links and bookmarks at a cloud service (lets call it Delicious) and then out of the blue Yahoo! suddenly decides to fire all the people working at that service and let it die a slow death. What about all those years worth of bookmarks then? This is somewhat complicated isn't it?

The browser
How awesome do you think it would be to play Halo: Reach in Google Chrome? Not so much? What about programming a movie-editor that has to work within the browser sandbox and is only allowed to cache 10MB of data, how would that go down you think? It wouldn't you say? Last one: Let's say we want to persuade ReSpawn Studios or Epic Games to work with WebGL on an unknown amount of browsers and computers instead of writing their engines based directly on a familiar platform. No dice? This is because the browser isn't a gaming platform, it isn't a good platform for handling a lots of files or large files. But, it does add another layer of security and it make everything accessible everywhere, plus if you're using Facebook and gMail what more do you need.. The average time a user spends in a web-page is about 10 seconds, this makes the "browser experience" kinda ..volatile..and short lived. Native app sessions are more persistent and have a longer lifespan, hence more suitable for playing games, editing movies and so on. The browser can do many things, not everything and yes, native apps will continue to be perform better for some time.

There is no war. The browser with it's web-apps is an awesome platform for some things, just as native apps do better on other things. I for one enjoy both web-apps and native-apps and will continue to do so for a long time I suspect.