13 Comments

Summary:

Google improved the web version of its Gmail application for Apple iPhone and iPod touch devices, further blending the lines between web and native applications. Client apps are still hot, but developers should look to Google for examples of a mobile future filled with web apps.

gmail-improvements-mobile-safari

Google improved the web version of its Gmail application for Apple iPhone and iPod touch devices running iOS 4, further blending the lines between web and native applications yesterday. Faster scrolling and a revamped toolbar that always appears at the top of the page are part of the changes, both of which bring a better user experience to smartphone owners. With the web-based mobile version of Gmail, Google is leading the way when it comes to showing off a future of feature-rich web apps.

Although I’m an Android user by day, not to mention a long-time Gmail addict, I keep an iPod touch around for app testing. So after I saw the update, I hit up the Gmail web page on my iPod’s browser and the experience is noticeably better. Perhaps I’m jaded because I use two Gmail accounts all day long in a desktop web browser, so I’m already used to what some consider to be a watered down experience.

But if I were to show Gmail in mobile Safari to the average person, I’m certain that a few would think it was a web app running in a browser — and not just from the improved look. The faster scrolling is exactly what you’d expect in a standard client app, and the stationary toolbar adds another level of polish to the view. Heck, if I could just get email notifications on my home screen from the web app like I can with the pre-installed Gmail app on my handset, I’d consider abandoning the Gmail software that I have to keep updating through the Android Market with every new release.

The secret sauce for the enhancements are improved techniques with JavaScript and HTML standards, with the latter constantly improving as HTML5 continues to evolve and gain acceptance. There’s no doubt we’re currently watching the rise of the app economy with billions of apps downloaded to mobiles over the past several years, but to ignore a future with robust web apps that require no download and run in a browser would be shortsighted due to some key advantages web apps bring.

Developers can deploy one app across multiple platforms, for example. There’s no need to write different code for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and WebOS when much the same code can be used in the browsers of each platform. Functional and user-interface improvements can be applied centrally for all users, which is precisely what Google is doing with Gmail on the web. And offline functionality combined with local data caching could possibly reduce mobile broadband usage. For these reasons, I asked developers if they’re ready for HTML5 in a GigaOM Pro piece (subscription required) earlier this month. Programmers can try to keep up with multiple mobile app stores and handset platforms, but the handwriting is on the wall if you watch Google: web apps can offer serious advantages to coders because of the write-once, deploy-everywhere elements while still providing a positive user experience.

The future doesn’t have to be an either/or situation though: startups like Sproutit see a blended approach. Creating an app using HTML5 standards and wrapping native code around it kills two birds with one stone: web users get the same look, feel and experience that native app users enjoy. Apply that thought to Gmail and one can imagine no difference between a native Gmail client or the web version. Indeed, the native Gmail app I use on my Android handset resembles the mobile web version already. That’s no coincidence, as Google is fully embracing a future of web apps and mobility across multiple devices.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d):

  1. [...] This is rather interesting.. the future of mobile applications.. [...]

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  2. I am asking myself when I will switch to mobile internet as standard application …

    Anyway, I like the point on web apps having advantages. This is exactly my point. Just because new things appear we should not forget the old.

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  3. It seems that Google try to stay on other OS platform not only on Android.

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  4. I would agree that HTML 5 and what comes along might be game changer for the future and, as a developer, I agree with your cross platforms statement.

    How do you like new Yahoo! Mail? I think it’s as fast as this one, for what I’ve tried so far.

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  5. “There’s no need to write different code for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and webOS when much the same code can be used in the browsers of each platform.”

    Really? You mean Microsoft/Internet Explorer will finally stop doing things their own way, and start complying with web standards? And users everywhere will abandon their older versions of this relic?

    Even now, HTML5 video support requires 2 codecs + Flash fallback, just to satisfy the 5 major browsers + the main mobile platforms.

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  6. HTML5 is the future – meaning it’s not here yet. When it eventually arrives it will do so in many different formats. Which begs the question – exactly what browser will support all the different formats and the corollary to that, is how do you know what are the device capabilities that are connecting to the web server.

    To this day (with one exception) there is still no way to accurately determine the real time device characteristics of the connecting device. And I don’t just mean what type of browser is at the other end, I mean all the devices capabilities.

    In addition to the other issues, one unintended consequence of HTML5 is going to be the bloated amount of JavaScript required to run these web pages. Again, with one exception there’s very little you can do to reduce the amount of JavaScript required.

    The old days of “best viewed in this browser” are almost back with us.

    Cheers,

    Peter
    5o9 Inc.

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  7. Mike Lawrence Friday, October 29, 2010

    I see the mobile solution landscape as a continuum from Web App, to Adobe Air app, to native app.

    Mobile Web apps have issues with caching content, caching views, hiding network issues, advanced compression, etc. They are at the low-end in terms of cost to develop and deploy, and low-end in terms of the user-experience. My google email web ap is no where near as responsive as my native email client on the iPhone 4. Switching between in-boxes kinnda hangs until the new window gets downloaded and painted.

    Adobe Air apps, are (or will be) write-once run-on-any-major-smartphone-platform (except Apple). They allow you to build a single code-base that gives access to all the advanced device hw like geolocation, accelerometer, camera, michrophone, etc.
    The Flash 10.1 runtime provides a common environment on each device to isolate the developer.

    The most expense apps are the native apps written to each platform. They have the highest user experience, performance, and cost-to-develop.

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  8. I access my gmail through the mail app on the iphone….
    Will this update improve my experience as well. One thing I have noticed is that some time back I removed the message string view on my desk top however the iphone did not recognized the change and continued to group my conversations.

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  9. The thing is. Each one of them have their own niche.

    While it may be more deployable and it seems dificult to make money of a web app. On the contrary, it’s easier to monetize with a Desktop app.

    We will probably see hybrid web apps, that will have payied and free acces and desktop apps, mostly paied.

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    1. – Sorry, the correct comment should be:

      The thing is. Each one of them have their own niche.

      While it may be more deployable and it seems dificult to make money of a web app. On the contrary, it’s easier to monetize with a Desktop app.

      We will probably see hybrid web apps, that will have paid and free acces and desktop apps, mostly paid.

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  10. Ashwini K Pandey Monday, November 1, 2010

    Just curiosity because of less knowledge…. If web app is the way…. why so many different OSes including Google’s? Won’t just any JAVA OS would be a fit for the need? May be security and openness might be the issues….

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