Did the web fail the iPhone?

Twitter / Ian McKellar: @factoryjoe, wait, so all these "web apps" people have invested time and money in are now second-class applications?

Ian might be right, but not because of Steve’s announcement today about opening up the iPhone.

Indeed, my reaction so far has been one of quasi-resignation and disappointment.

A voice inside me whimpers, “Don’t give up on the web, Steve! Not yet!”

iPhoneDevCampYou have to understand that when I got involved in helping to plan iPhoneDevCamp, we didn’t call it iPhoneWebDevCamp for a reason. As far as we knew, and as far as we could see into the immediate future, the web was the platform of the iPhone (Steve Jobs even famously called Safari the iPhone’s SDK).

The hope that we were turning the corner on desktop-based applications was palpable. By keeping the platform officially closed, Apple brought about a collective channeling of energy towards the development of efficient and elegant web interfaces for Safari, epitomized by Joe Hewitt’s iPhone Facebook App (started as a project around iPhoneDevCamp and now continued on as by Christopher Allen, founder of the ).

And we were just getting started.

…So the questions on my mind today are: was this the plan all along? Or, was Steve forced into action by outside factors?

iPhone Spider WebIf this were the case all along, I’d be getting pretty fed up with these kind of costly and duplicitous shenanigans. For godsake, Steve could at least afford to stop being so contradictory! First he lowers the price of the iPhone months after releasing it, then drops the price of DRM-free tracks (after charging people to “upgrade their music”), and now he’s promising a software SDK in February, pledging that an “open” platform “is a step in the right direction” (after bricking people’s phones and launching an iPhone WebApps directory, seemingly in faux support of iPhone Web App developers).

Now, if this weren’t in the plan all along, then Apple looks like a victim of the promise — and hype — of the web as platform. (I’ll entertain this notion, while keeping in mind that Apple rarely changes direction due to outside influence, especially on product strategy.)

Say that everything Steve said during his keynote were true and he (and folks at Apple) really did believe that the web was the platform of the future — most importantly, the platform of Apple’s future — this kind of reversal would have to be pretty disappointing inside Apple as well. Especially considering their cushy arrangement with Google and the unlikelihood that Mac hardware will ever outsell PCs (so long as Apple has the exclusive right to produce Mac hardware), it makes sense that Apple sees its future in a virtualized, connected world, where its apps, its content and its business is made online and in selling thin clients, rather than in the kind of business where Microsoft made its billions, selling dumb boxes and expiring licenses to the software that ran on them.

If you actually read Apple’s guide for iPhone content and application development, you’d have to believe that they get the web when they call for:

  • Understanding User-iPhone Interaction
  • Using Standards and Tried-and-True Design Practices
  • Integrating with Phone, Mail, and Maps
  • Optimizing for Page Readability
  • Ensuring a Great Audio and Video Experience (while Flash is not supported)

These aren’t the marks of a company that is trying to embrace and extend the web into its own proprietary nutshell. Heck, they even support microformats in their product reviews. It seems so badly that they want the web — the open web — to succeed given all the rhetoric so far. Why backslide now?

Well, to get back to the title of this post, I can’t but help feel like the web failed the iPhone.

For one thing, native apps are a known quantity for developers. There are plenty of tools for developing native applications and interfaces that don’t require you to learn some arcane layout language that doesn’t even have the concept of “columns”. You don’t need to worry about setting up servers and hosting and availability and all the headaches of running web apps. And without offering “services in the cloud” to make web application hosting and serving a piece of cake, Apple kind of shot itself in the foot with its developers who again, aren’t so keen on the ways of the web.

Flipped around, as a proponent of the web, even I can admit how unexciting standard interfaces on the web are. And how much work and knowledge it requires to compete with the likes of Adobe’s AIR and Microsoft’s SilverLight. I mean, us non-proprietary web-types rejoice when Safari gets support for CSS-based rounded corners and the ability to use non-standard typefaces. SRSLY? The latter feature was specified in 1998! What took so long?!

No wonder native app developers aren’t crazy about web development for the iPhone. Why should they be? At least considering where we’re at today, there’s a lot to despise about modern web design and to despair about how little things have improved in the last 10 years.

And yet, there’s a lot to love too, but not the kind of stuff that makes iPhone developers want to abandon what’s familiar, comfortable, safe, accessible and hell, sexy.

It’s true, for example, that with the web you get massive distribution. It means you don’t need a framework like Sparkle to keep your apps up-to-date. You can localize your app in as many languages as you like, and based on your web stats, can get a sense for which languages you should prioritize. With protocols like OpenID and OAuth, you get access to all kind of data that won’t be available solely on a user’s system (especially when it comes to the iPhone which dispenses with “Save” functionality) as well a way to uniquely identify your customers across applications. And you get the heightened probability that someone might come along and look to integrate with or add value to your service via some kind of API, without requiring any additional download to the user’s system. And the benefits go on. But you get the point.

Even still, these benefits weren’t enough to sway iPhone developers, nor, apparently, Steve Jobs. And to the degree to which the web is lacking in features and functionality that would have allowed to Steve to hold off a little longer, there is opportunity to improve and expand upon what I call the collection of “web primitives” that compose the complete palette of interaction options for developers who call the web their native platform. The simple form controls, the lightboxes, the static embedded video and audio, the moo tools and scriptaculouses… they still don’t stack up against native (read: proprietary) interface controls. And we can do better.

We must to do better! We need to improve what’s going inside the browser frame, not just around it. It’s not enough to make a JavaScript compiler faster or even to add support for SVG (though it helps). We need to define, design and construct new primitives for the web, that make it super simple, straight-forward and extremely satisfying to develop for the web. I don’t know how it is that web developers have for so long put up with the frustrations and idiosyncrasies of web application development. And I guess, as far as the iPhone goes, they won’t have to anymore.

It’s a shame really. We could have done so much together. The web and the iPhone, that is. We could have made such sweet music. Especially when folks realize that Steve was right and developing for Safari is the future of application development, they’ll have wished that they had invested in and lobbied for richer and better tools and interfaces for what will inevitably become the future of rich internet application development and, no surprise, the future of the iPhone and all its kin.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

24 thoughts on “Did the web fail the iPhone?”

  1. Well, more casualties, though not as massive as full-on Apps like Audion, et al., still casualties.

    So, that chops the value of about 8 months of web dev by myriad folks in half? Or perhaps some of these web apps will retain their value beyond 08’s new SDK…

  2. The web and iPhone still can do so much together. It’s just that now the web isn’t being forced to try to provide services that are insanely more appropriate for native apps.

    Let the web be the web, and let the desktop app be the desktop app.

    Perhaps the most exciting apps of all on the iPhone will in fact be the hybrid native/web apps. I know how much you like these types of apps on the Mac. There’s a reason they exist on the Mac, too, you know. The web isn’t very good at many kinds of apps, and I’m not sure there’s much advantage in it trying to compete in those arenas.

  3. I’m of two minds about this. I love the things that have been done with iPhone webapps, but the real problem for me is offline mode. Most of the time I’m using my phone, I’m in the subway.

    If there were a great way for the Safari and the iPhone to marry to a local database (like Gears or AIR), they could have a “safe” SDK that was safer from badware. I’ll be very curious to see what the iPhone SDK looks like when it comes out.

  4. Hi Chris, a small sidenote on the “compete with Flash and Silverlight; we rejoice when Safari…” line. (I’d quote directly, but for some reason I can’t select your text directly in this Opera browser on my Nokia tablet.)

    The Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) is a way to extend browser work to the desktop. It uses the Webkit rendering technology for HTML/JS/CSS, same as the Safari browser you mention in the next sentence. AIR cannot compete with HTML, because AIR *is* HTML — well-formed HTML work renders within AIR as-is, and can also use additional optional APIs for desktop presence, notifications, local storage, windowing, local file access and more.

    Microsoft’s Silverlight, like Adobe Flash Player and Google Gears, is a legitimate way to extend the various browsers’ abilities. Netscape Plugins arrived at the same time as JavaScript, back in Netscape 2.0. Whether a particular project should be done in HTML/JS/CSS, or SWF, or XAML or whatever depends more on the needs of the particular project than on general branding, because the capabilities of each technology vary so greatly.

    No big thing… it’s just that when I see a line like “HTML competing with AIR or Silverlight” then I get as dizzy as if someone socked me in the jaw. These are three different types of complementary technologies: HTML browsers, browser extensions, and desktop HTML applications. I won’t be able to follow up on this conversation (I’m on sabbatical in China right now), but I hope we can agree on this…?

    tx, jd/adobe

  5. Why the arbitrary distinction between ‘web apps’ and internet-connected native applications? That gives you the best of both worlds for some uses. All the power, the local storage and access to hardware with the flexibility and interoperability of the web.

  6. I think part of the reason people are so excited about this is it will theoretically allow people to use the *native* resources of the phone–offline storage, access to the camera and sensors, full use of the multitouch interface. Even if Apple was to provide access to those things through Javascript within MobileSafari or something, it wouldn’t exactly be what you’d call web standards.

    I’m very much with Daniel on the idea that there’s not some sort of moral superiority to the web. Web apps are naturally better suited to some things, desktop apps are better for other things, and hybrids of the two can be even more compelling than either on their own. I expect you’ll be seeing an awful lot of hybrids built on the iPhone SDK.

    I’m sure over time the distinction between web apps and desktop apps will start to be less and less meaningful, but for now I think it’s absolutely advantageous for the iPhone to be able to support both.

  7. Hi Chris
    Just a little inquiry. How can i subscribe to RSS feeds to your website? I did not notice any link that enables me to that! Help!

  8. There’s so much to say about the divide between desktop developers and web app developers. On the one hand they have proprietary but easy to construct UIs; on the other hand we can just View Source on each other’s UIs _and_ behavioral logic. They’ve got native code and nice APIs, we’ve got tons of data to leverage. I’ll pre-empt the rambling here.

    To me, Brent Simmons writing on hybrid desktop/web apps will be (mostly) “the way” going forward. We’ll have to meet somewhere in the middle to figure out what should be web-ish and what should be desktop-ish. It also makes things like WebRunner and XULRunner _really_ important in the Open Source ecosystem.

  9. Dude, we are so on the same page when it comes to boosting the web’s basic primitives. I’ve been feeling exactly the same way lately, and have been very frustrated with Ajax these days — I’m like, it’s 2007 and I *still* have to do so much crap to eke 2 and 3 columns out of CSS?!?! If you ever wanna grab a beer or coffee and brainstorm about this stuff shoot me a line.

    Hope all is well,

  10. The internet can definitely be used as an application environment, I don’t think anybody at Apple dismisses that. The thing is, take away your internet access and what do you have? No access to your applications. Say internet goes out for a day; all of a sudden you have a bricked-ish phone. As an anti-Apple guy, I’ll admit that when I first heard about the iPhone, I was pumped and primed to get one, but upon hearing that you can’t actually have applications aside from through Safari, my rare Apple fanboydom subsided rapidly.

    It isn’t as if web apps can’t continue to be developed. If that is your cup of tea, then go for it. But for the other 90% of users out there, they would rather have standalone applications AND web applications they can access at will.

  11. I think Eugene nails it. If we had ubiquitous, broadband internet access we might be able to use a web model to much more effect (Surfin Safari just posted about local SQL storage) but we don’t and we’re a long way from it. I’ll take a desktop or hybrid model over a web app any day in the current state of the state.

  12. Guess what gang, the consumer, who really benefits from what you guys build, really doesn’t care what platform apps are built on. No, they care that they exist, function as expected and perform well. That’s it.

    I want cool new apps not apps limited by a platform choice, a choice made solely for the sake of the platform.

    Sorry, but consumers care about the end, not the means of getting there, unless the means yields a less than satisfactory end.

  13. Some of the students in our graduate program are interested in pitching a semester long project to tackle this problem. Perhaps together we could make some ehad way on unique web based apps that could compete with native apps… Anyone interested to help out or give us ideas please let me know!
    Grad program: entertainment technology center, carnegie mellon university

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