I've had a fairly iPhone deficient day. A brief encounter with the Apple store not withstanding I really haven't focused on today's release. The one article that did catch my eye was this one by Mashable entitled "How the iPhone App Store Will Kill iPhone Web Apps"
In it they come to this conclusion...
The end is finally here for the Web app. And I, for one, am happy to see it go.
I'm enjoying all the native apps as much as the next guy but I still see a very valid need for Web Apps. In fact, I'd say applications that don't need the added functionality of a native environment are better off staying with the Web App. Native applications should be the domain of applications that (a) need access to the iPhone's hardware (camera, graphic acceleration, etc...) or (b) need to use background services (such as IM clients and such)
Below I give several reasons why the iPhone Web App shouldn't and probably won't be going anywhere.
Early Adopters vs The Rest Of Us
I think its important to make a distinction between the mentality of the early adopter and that of the average consumer. Early adopters go out of their way to look for what they can do with a device which includes spending tons of time going through the Apple App Store to see all the neat apps they can find.
The Average Consumer on the other hand is more likely to wait until they need something to go looking for it. That makes "no install" a huge advantage in this arena. Things like tip calculators or restaurant finders are probably better left on the Web where they can be accessed at a moments notice.
Web Apps Got Better too
One of the points the Mashable article makes is to say...
Apple was ostensibly under the impression that users wouldn’t mind using Safari to access applications and the lack of native software wouldn’t really matter. But after few people jumped on the bandwagon, it became abundantly clear that developers weren’t all that willing to jump on-board and more often than not, online applications were plagued with lag issues, few updates, and only simple games were available.
There's truth to that but I'd point out that many of the problems with iPhone Web Apps were related to painfully slow data speeds delivered by an Edge network. I find most web apps are perfectly fine over WiFi.
So 3G speeds are going to be a major plus for Web Apps in the future.
The Establishment comes knocking
Should the iPhone really take off in the corporate world the idea of "lowest possible development cost" is going to start coming into play. That means trying to have as small a code base as possible which in turn makes developing web apps for your existing Intranet a lot easier than creating native apps.
Any serious business is probably going to be too enamored by the cost savings of web apps to even look at the native side of things.
I Love Cocoa, You Love Cocoa, but Not Everybody Loves Cocoa
Somewhat related to the above point you have to remember there's a huge barrier of entry to iPhone development. It literally requires you start over from scratch and learn Apple's custom development environment. No Java, No C#, No Visual Basic, No Windows Development, No Linux Development, and no Flash development. All your existing tools are useless to you.
If you want to develop for the iPhone and you aren't already an Apple developer you need to go out and buy yourself a Mac, get accustomed to that, load up XCode (the Mac Development tool), get accustomed to that, then start learning an entirely new programming language (Objective C) and get accustomed to that. A language, I might add, that is only used by Apple. So it isn't like you can decide to switch from Java to Objective C and do all your work in that from now on.
For independent developers this is a tall fence to climb especially when they can use all their current tools to develop web apps for the iPhone.
Back to the Mashable article for a second, they make this point...
On top of that, we can’t discount the fact that online apps are missing a key component: revenue models. Unlike the Web, Apple’s App store provides developers with the opportunity to sell applications at any price and effectively help them turn a profit on something that was making nothing online. On top of that, Apple will allow free apps to be ad-supported, meaning every developer has an opportunity to turn a profit regardless of the software’s price.
And although some may say that ads could help developers turn a profit online, the amount of people heading to online apps isn’t nearly high enough to do it.
True...but not really.
A large part of the Web App world is acting as an extension for a web page. I had never in my life visited or even heard of Weatherbug.com until they were one of the first to have an iPhone web app. Now I use their desktop site about once a day (where there are plenty of ads).
Web Apps are easy to develop for those already maintaining a commercial web site so there isn't much of a barrier to entry and they act as free, virtually constant advertising for the larger brand.
Bottom line: The Mashable logic makes the mistake of assuming iPhone apps exist in a vaccuum which they don't.
The Missing Fun
This last point is a very personal one but still valid. Developing a deployable native app is, by Apple's design, hard. They allow you to use the development environment to put it on your iPhone but to give it to anyone else you have to either get accepted into the Apple program and wait 6 months or register each iPhone using the software as one of your corporate computers.
That essentially locks out the hobbyist developer who sits at his PC for 8 hours on a Saturday, kicks out a neat little app and then sends it to all his friends. That scenario is what makes being a hobbyist developer fun and that scenario isn't possible with native apps. Web apps on the other hand are free game.
I think people would be surprised at how many times the next cool thing gets developed by a hobbyist over a weekend.
Hopefully the above has made the point that there's still a very rich world available to iPhone Web Apps. Don't get me wrong, native is great and I personally am using the SDK to develop applications that make use of the camera (which I couldn't do in a web app). But that doesn't mean the end is near for the web app.
I think both types probably have a pretty bright future.