Can the web ever replace native? Will the web as we know it ever replace all other modes of presentation for interactive technologies?
These questions are being asked with increasing regularity as the ambitions of the major browsers appear to be to eventually replace the native capabilities of a device application.
So why is it that in the last couple of years browser ambitions have become so prevalent and strong? Well, for a start, the battle for supremacy of one technology over another has reverberated through history for longer than we have had transistor-based electronics.
One need only look at the arguments over the gauge of railway lines in the 1800s (opens in new tab) or the war of currents over AC vs DC (opens in new tab) fought out between Tesla and Edison. Or the ever so recent battles of Mac vs PC and now HTML5 (web) vs native.
However, rarely does a technology succeed so conclusively that it obliterates the competition. More likely, we see secondary technologies fill a niche where they are comfortably utilised. It is only once a technology section has matured and stabilised that the impact of an individual technology is felt on a scale which has the greatest influence on consumer behaviour.
The original intended purpose and primary functionality of the web was to allow the dissemination of structured content across multiple nodes (opens in new tab). Specifically of interest to Tim Berners-Lee was the dissemination of information and enhancing communication, which developed into and took root based on individuals utilising it to communicate via messaging services, forums, websites and other services.
The lore of the original browsers was that they were created to allow universities and academics to share information faster and easier than other publication means. This also opened up a world where ideas could be collaborated on in a strange asynchronous real-ish time across wide geographies.
Even taking into consideration the increasing capabilities of browsers, all the little flourishes and major features, very little has changed in terms of the fundamental human behaviour on the web.
Instead the increase in functionality and computational power has only served to enable a greater degree of sophistication within delivery including presentation, the usage of content and interactions.
In the last decade, many of the imposed constraints led to superior technologies. Whilst software which didn’t suffer constraints became bloated and cumbersome to deal with, manage or even recommend.
The web is evolving, but the behaviour of a single page application is not actually that far removed from the patterns we have previously seen in how people utilise the web.
After all, this evolution was enabled due to Microsoft’s invention of AJAX (opens in new tab) to solve a reporting and platform issue for themselves based on a real need. Equally there would not be animated sites if Macromedia had not put Flash (opens in new tab) on the web; was then superseded by HTML5 animations.
Each step of technological evolution leads to maturity only when the many challenges are being firmly addressed in terms of security, interoperability and performance. Look at the confusion around Flash when rejected by Apple, as they did not consider the implications of Flash on mobile.
At its roots, Flash is great on a device which is tethered to a power supply and as it is a black box technology, the capabilities, security and performance concerns of smartphones were not easily addressed.
So are we reasonable in expecting the web to become the next platform and replace our native capabilities? We can answer the question with two responses.
In a homogenous technology environment it is very reasonable to expect the web to replace native. However we live in a heterogenous environment where the varying needs of individuals and groups mean it is difficult to create one ubiquitous platform that will serve all equally.
Look at the struggle that Java has had in attempting to be the ubiquitous delivery platform for applications. Or even the specific performance concerns that games (i.e. Race for the Sun) or even start ups like Uber face where the web would not be good enough with those specific requirements.
There is a place for the web, connected devices and natively compiled applications in our future. And I, like PPK (opens in new tab), also express a concern that we need to exercise caution in increasing the scope of the already quite complex browser without carefully weighing up the cost/benefit / maintenance implications before we delve too deep into a world that can create despair.
Words: Thomas Cowell (opens in new tab)
Thomas Cowell is head of experience technology (UK) at SapientNitro (opens in new tab).
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