Web Apps

By Mark Nuyens
6 min. read📱 Technology

A recent announcement by Netflix to launch a bunch of games accessible through their website is another reminder of the potential of web technology. In my opinion, this is a clear indication that our browsers are evolving from mere gateways to the internet into platforms for diverse applications, including gaming. This evolution emphasizes the web’s role as our primary hub for daily digital interactions. If games are playable through browsers, what else can be ported to the web?

Google, the internet giant, already anticipated this shift towards browser-centric technology long before anyone else did. They've poured significant resources into their Chromebook, an internet-driven operating system. Yet, consumers have been hesitant so far. Perhaps the sleek aesthetics of Apple's products and the familiarity of the iPhone offered a sense of reliability and trust Google can only dream of (their infamous data harvesting habits may have something to do with that). Still, the philosophy underpinning Google's attempts cannot be dismissed. Their goal was, and still is, to harness the power of cloud-based services and seamlessly connect them through a simple, internet-enabled device.

In my previous articles, I wrote about why I think web apps are the future. Today, I still believe reliance on Apple's platform, or Google's for that matter, should be reduced. There are numerous benefits to using web apps over native apps for both developers and consumers. So, why don't we collectively pay more attention to this? Why isn't there greater emphasis from community leaders, society, and regulatory bodies? I believe it's a fear of change. I recently drove an electric vehicle for the first time, despite their presence in the market for years. It wasn't fear that delayed me, but the comfort of an existing, functional solution. "Don't fix what isn't broken," as the saying goes. However, when it comes to software, the definition of "broken" may be open to interpretation.

A significant factor hindering the adoption of web apps is the installation process, particularly on iOS. If there was a straightforward installation portal, web apps could likely become mainstream. Education plays a part, but there's also a user interface issue in Apple's Safari browser that could be easily resolved. While Apple allows users to install web apps to the homescreen, the process is somewhat obscured, or not available at all (e.g. Firefox on iOS cannot provide such an option due to Apple's constraints). Allowing third-party browsers to adopt this feature is a step in the right direction. However, a simple client-side solution to trigger the "Install App" prompt would be even better, essentially making any website capable of providing an option for easy installation. Unfortunately, fears of illegitimate origins or malicious activities are most likely being used as an excuses to avoid considering this implementation in the first place.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to consider how this seemingly minor UI issue benefits Apple. If users aren't installing web apps, they're installing native apps, which in turn, feeds into the "Apple tax" revenue stream. This is a fee developers pay Apple for transactions made within the app. Despite a decline in iPhone sales, Apple's financial reports show a surge in profitability from its online services, like the App Store. This situation points to a conflict of interest for Apple. Promoting their native apps doesn't necessarily mean they're advocating for superior performance for their customers. Instead, it's simply a more lucrative revenue stream, and has little to do with user experience, if you ask me.

There are undeniable benefits of web applications over native applications for developers and consumers alike. For developers, web technology is robust, constantly evolving, and does not require distribution on various platforms. There's no "Apple tax", updates can be deployed instantly, and it supports a diverse range of devices. For consumers, web apps do not require disk space, can be as fast as native apps, and content can be easily shared through URLs. Consumers can access their services from any device and are not confined to specific hardware. The potential for a greater number of applications that would be made available through the web is also a significant advantage.

About a decade ago, I engaged in discussions about this very topic with a group of individuals. Essentially, my point centered around the fact that the majority of our native applications could potentially operate on the web. To be candid, my insights weren't met with much seriousness. Particularly among Apple users, the prevailing reaction was skepticism about the feasibility and likelihood of such a shift. However, here we stand today. In my view, time has proven my prediction accurate, even though the general public remains largely uninformed about the advantages this software distribution evolution brings. The primary factor behind this knowledge gap appears to be their unwavering trust in Apple, which has inadvertently prevented them from fully grasping this transformative progression.

With powerhouse applications like Netflix, Spotify, Whatsapp, Office, Email, ChatGPT, password managers, and gaming already accessible via web browsers, it's clear that the web has definitely matured. More powerful software like Figma for graphic design, Adobe Lightroom for photo editing, and Github Code Spaces for coding are also available regardless of the operating system. As this trend continues, it's likely that we'll continue to see a shift towards web-based applications, ultimately redefining our relationship with the web and technology.

Apple, my simple request is for Safari to have support for triggering the "Add to homescreen" prompt (e.g. via JavaScript), as mentioned here. By accommodating this, you could generate significant enthusiasm among developers, demonstrating that your intentions extend beyond financial gains. Furthermore, you'd be illustrating your commitment to delivering personalized user experiences, all the while maintaining the sale of your premium hardware. I understand that the likelihood of this materializing might be slim, but I felt compelled to raise this request nonetheless.