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Chrome web apps vs. mobile apps

July 6, 2011

In my previous post I argued that what Chrome OS really needs is for websites to move closer to web apps, stealing a page from mobile apps to provide more compelling user experiences. And while I still think that the development of technologies to create compelling mobile web apps might help push that transition to compelling desktop web apps, I should note that there’s a potential sticking point.

A fair number of desktop web services provide APIs so that 3rd party developers can create compelling desktop and mobile native applications that leverage those services. The web service providers benefit because developers essentially provide free labor, while users win because of the competition between developers to provide compelling applications for a given service. Witness the wide variety of 3rd Twitter clients, some of which have were subsequently acquired by Twitter.

However, there isn’t a similar culture for web apps: you just don’t see developers creating web apps or websites that wrappers for other websites. As a result, users are more or less stuck with using the web interfaces provided by the developers of the web service. I’ll use Google Reader as an example, since I can’t stand Google Reader’s desktop interface. Sorry, but I avoid it like the plague. But while I don’t like the Google Reader web UI, I use both NetNewsWire and Reeder, which are essentially native interfaces (both desktop and mobile) to the Google Reader service. I benefit from the competition among native application providers. Sadly, on the web interface side there just isn’t that same competition, so in Chrome OS I’m stuck with using the interface that Google itself provides. In practice that means I avoid reading my feeds on Chrome OS.

I don’t think there’s a technical barrier to developers competing to offer alternate web interfaces to existing web services; in theory they could use the same APIs that native developers leverage. But creating such competition will require creating the perception that there’s a sufficient market for alternate web interfaces (and to Google’s credit, the Chrome App Store does in theory provide a mechanism for making money off of such interfaces). And actually demand behind that perception would obviously be useful too. In practice, I suspect that it may also require a change in the terms of use provided by web service providers.

Bottom line, better technologies for creating more compelling web apps are only part of what’s needed to make Chrome OS more appealing. The other thing we need is more competition among developers to provide alternate web interfaces to backend web services. Or for the providers of those services to raise their own game, but I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.

From → Mobile, Musings, Software

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