Back to the Future With iPhone OS Web Apps?
The iPhone was introduced to the world almost three years ago to the day. When Steve Jobs stepped on stage June 9, 2007 at that year’s WWDC keynote, he brought with him the smartphone that would revolutionize an industry. At the time Jobs was insistent the iPhone would only support third party applications through web apps written in Ajax, HTML 5, and other web standards. The Apple CEO felt the future was on the web, not in locally installed applications. It was a typically bold move from the Apple chief that left some people who saw him as a visionary messiah and others just scratching their heads. Of course, history tells us how quickly Apple changed course and gave developers the ability to create native applications.
It was with interest then this week with which I observed an interesting trend. Steve Jobs made a very telling statement during his interview at D8:
Well let first say we have two platforms we support. One is open and uncontrolled — that’s HTML5. We support HTML5. We have the best support for it of anyone in the world. We then support a curated platform which is the app store. It is the most vital app community on any platform. How do we curate this? It’s a bunch of people, and they come into work every day. We have a few rules: has to do what it’s advertised to do, it has to not crash, it can’t use private APIs. And those are the three biggest reasons we reject apps. But we approve 95% of all the apps that are submitted every week.
While some saw this as an obvious dig at those that say Apple’s application submissions system is arbitrary and closed, I see something else buried in that statement. Steve wants to go back to the future of web apps. He would like nothing better to see growth in the viable web apps available for the iPhone OS ecosystem. Apple has even gone so far as to create a showcase of HTML 5 web applications which we wrote about yesterday. Why would Apple want to push developers towards an ecosystem they can’t control? I would propose a twofold answer to that question.
The first answer is somewhat cynical. Apple has every interest in promoting technologies that support its position against Flash. HTML 5 and web applications have the ability to replace everything developers currently do with Flash. A growth in web applications could be the body blow required to finally knock it out. While any web page can now be placed as a shortcut on the Home Screen of an iPhone OS-based device, purpose-built web apps created using Apple-supported technologies would raise that capability to a new level. Fully functional, web-based applications that don’t require Flash will fundamentally change public opinion about the usefulness of the technology. Anyone that has used the Google Voice application written using HTML 5 knows that it appears and functions just as if it was a native application. There isn’t a bit of Flash in it. Now imagine if thousands of such examples existed.
The second answer is about where Apple sees the future opportunity. Google announced at their I/O conference they would be opening a web apps store later this year. This app store would allow developers to submit their web applications to a central store where users would purchase access to them. The only requirement for use would be an HTML 5-compliant browser like Chrome, Safari, or the upcoming IE 9. It isn’t much of a leap to see Apple has an eye on similar revenue streams. There is a whole pool of web developers out there that could be tapped to develop applications for the iPhone. These applications would be cross platform, runnable on any iPhone OS device, and future-proof against upgrades. An uncurated web apps store could be a shining example Apple would hold up against their critics. It would deflect criticism and turn them a tidy little profit. Who could ask for anything more?
Does Apple’s current emphasis on web apps signal a return to some of the original intentions for the iPhone or a cynical redirection of criticism? Would you be willing to use more web apps on your iPhone OS device? Does the origin of an app (native code versus web apps) matter to you? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section.
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Check out the demo version (HTML5) of iPhone game Hand of Greed ($.99) here.