In most cases, mobile developers are focusing on native apps, hitting iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) before looking at the mobile Web. But Loku, a local discovery service, will flip the conventional wisdom on its head with plans to launch a mobile Web app before it tackles native apps.
The company, based in San Francisco and Austin, is releasing its first mobile app Tuesday since launching a Web site last fall. The HTML5 app ties into Loku’s discovery service, which leverages big data, data mining and natural-language search to figure out all the interesting places, events and news happening in a local area.
The Loku app–really a mobile Website–pulls in local data on events, music, restaurants, news, photos and write-ups from local blogs. Users who turn to the app will find the data tailored to their particular location and the time of day. Those users can increase their local ranking among fellow users by exploring more of their city or contributing back content into Loku. The Loku app will launch initially in San Francisco, New York, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC, with other cities coming online in later this year.
The HTML5 app is a pretty slick piece of software, enabling animations like page flips up and down that let users view all the interesting and relevant things happening around them. Users can also get alerts that come in from the top and bottom of the app.
Dan Street, the CEO of Loku, told me in an interview that he first thought the company would just alpha test its mobile service using the HTML5 app before pursuing a native app first. But when he saw how flexible and powerful HTML5 was in creating native-like experiences, he decided to start right there and follow up with dedicated apps wrapped in a native shell for Android and iOS. Those apps will appear in the coming months.
“I think it’s the right order. It’s hard to change a native app when it’s in someone’s hands. With HTML5, it’s super easy to make updates and you can control distribution,” Street said.
Street said that during a limited test in Austin, Loku got 17,000 users on to the mobile Web app in a couple of weeks. That makes him think there’s no immediate need to push out a native app; to get Loku on their phone, users can just navigate to Loku.com and then bookmark the app or save it to their home screen.
“As the technology keeps maturing, you’ll see others do Web first then get it nailed and get traction before they go with native apps,” Street said.
I think Loku may be a little ahead of the curve here but it’s taking an interesting approach. Having a Web app lets it take advantage of Web search marketing and it focuses Loku’s efforts on one product that it can more easily port to different mobile platforms. Also, starting first with a mobile Web app lets companies knock out bugs quickly, something that can be slower on iOS because of Apple’s review policy.
Native apps will always have their place, especially for more performance-intensive apps like games. And HTML5 is still in need of more seasoning, especially in providing better access to the underlying device hardware. For example, it’s hard to upload photos and use the device camera with HTML5, something Facebook has also cited as a problem. But increasingly, the hardware makers are opening up more access to their devices for HTML5 apps. And that is going to make mobile-Web first more of an option for developers.