Embracing Web Apps

Embracing Web Apps

Not sure mobile apps will ever make it in Windows

Like many of you, I find myself using web pages—or, more appropriately, web apps—throughout the day. I've written and spoken about this phenomenon a lot, but the conventional wisdom is that most casual PC users can get by purely with web apps—Facebook, email, a web browser, even some basic games—and that this situation has led to the popularity of Chromebooks, especially in education and with consumers. But web apps don't just satisfy basic needs anymore. And that is a big change.

Even a power user such as myself has less and less need for traditional Windows apps than just a few years ago. And that's because web apps are far more sophisticated, functionally, and increasingly come with offline capabilities that put them more on par with traditional native applications.

The rise of the web as a serious platform has been a long time coming: Netscape bet big on this change in the late 1990s and lost big time thanks to its own ineptitude and Microsoft's aggressive business practices. But when mobile computing came of age in the wake of the iPhone, it was sort of assumed that simple, single-purpose mobile apps would replace both monolithic desktop PC apps and web apps. Oddly enough, that hasn't really happened.

Consider a typical mobile device, which for most people is probably an Android or iOS device, though in these here parts we also will include touch-based Windows 8 tablets and other devices, including Windows Phone. Mobile apps rule on these devices, but you can also use a mix of web apps and mobile apps.

Likewise, on a traditional, non-touch PC, you will find that most use some combination of web apps and desktop applications. But on the PC, especially the balance is increasingly tilting in favor of web apps.

The allure of web-based apps is obvious, regardless of whether you're talking about PCs or mobile devices: Now, finally, developers can (ostensibly) target a single platform—in this case HTML 5, which is really a combination of modern versions of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other technologies—which runs equally well on all modern computing platforms, regardless of screen size. This has been the dream for decades, whether you're talking about the PC, Java, the web or whatever. But here in 2014, the web is finally making that finally push into the mainstream.

Like most of you, I use a real PC for work, with a big screen, serious CPU horsepower, lots of RAM, the works. Despite this, my time spent in traditional PC applications—excluding web browsers, of course—has only declined over the years.

Yes, there are a handful of powerful desktop applications that are hard to imagine in web guise—software development environments like Visual Studio and Android Studio being an obvious example—but some other high-end desktop solutions are making the transition to the web as you read this. Microsoft, for example, makes a subset of key Office apps available for free via Office Online, and there are of course many third party alternatives, including some that offer offline support. And even mighty Photoshop has been neatly replicated in the web. Check out the Pixlr Editor if you haven't for a good example. There are video editors in the web, for crying out loud.

What most PC-compatible web apps—and all Microsoft web apps—lack, currently, is offline support. I have to believe that this was a conscious decision on Microsoft's part, because adding this kind of support to, say, Office Online, would materially impact Office 365 sales (Rejoinder: Just make offline capabilities a feature of Office 365 only, Microsoft.) But Google, with no legacy desktop platform to protect, has moved more quickly to embrace web apps, as you'd expect. (Heck, Chromebook is simply a formalization of this strategy, a way to make web apps a part of an actual hardware platform.) So we see offline support in such key Google web apps as Gmail, Docs and the like.

To someone in the Microsoft sphere, this may seem like a semi-pointless exercise. We already have offline support in (desktop) Office, for example, and will soon get it on mobile devices courtesy of Office Touch for Windows. How or why would offline-capable web apps improve matters?

Well, such solutions tend to be free, for starters. But it's more than price.

To the majority of people out there, however, being in a Microsoft bubble isn't all that interesting. They want to access their data and apps from anywhere. And while Microsoft has done a great job of extending its mobile apps to other platforms, it's worked less quickly—and, more important, less technically well—on the web side. I'm actually kind of curious, for example, while the Mail app for Windows 8.x isn't just a wrapper around a web app that would look and work exactly the same on all platforms (via a browser).

Heresy, you say? Google's doing it.

While you can access consistent mobile app versions of Gmail on various platforms, by which I mean Android and iOS, Google also makes its own PC/Mac competitor called ChromeOS, which is used most often in Chromebooks, laptop-like devices that (wake up, folks) are now made by every single major PC maker on earth. ChromeOS is of course a web-based platform, so if you access Gmail on such a device, what you see is the desktop web-based version of the service. But Google also offers something called Gmail Offline which, aside from obviously offering offline capabilities, also presents an HTML 5-based version of the Gmail mobile app. So it looks and works just like a real mobile app, even on desktop Windows, where you can save the application shortcut to your taskbar and access it like a real Windows application.

It's like the mobile app version of Gmail ... on your Windows PC

So we'll see how things evolve. But if the past few years have taught us anything, that evolution will almost certainly involve native mobile apps and web apps on truly mobile platforms and mostly web apps on desktop PC/traditional PC platforms. Even Apple is starting to figure this out: Beta versions of web-based iWork apps are available now at icloud.com. You can assume iLife is next.

Even Apple sees the writing on the wall for traditional Mac/PC apps

Today, in Windows, you have a few choices for accessing web apps. Obviously, you can load any web app in any modern web browser—IE, Chrome, Firefox—tab and access them as you would any web site. But I prefer the more advanced capabilities in IE and Chrome which let you pin web apps to the taskbar or desktop and then access them as standalone "apps" alongside your traditional PC applications.

Internet Explorer offers one major feature that puts it over the top in this regard: You can create multi-tab pinned sites, meaning that a web app window can have multiple tabs. I do this for two pinned items on my taskbar: I have one pinned item with my web-based email services (home and work) and one for news (which is Google News and The Old Reader, a replacement for the now defunct Google Reader).

For those in the Microsoft sphere, IE also offers settings sync between Windows 8.1+ PCs and Windows Phones, which is huge for anyone with multiple devices.

But Chrome has a number of features I prefer as well. First, its pinned sites have no browser chrome (small c), meaning they look more like native apps and less like browser windows. (IE's pinned sites retain all the IE user interface junk.)

Second, Google formally supports web apps (and extensions) through its Chrome Web Store, and there are some good ones in there. Most work in Chrome across multiple hardware platforms—Windows, Mac, ChromeOS—and if you ever doubted the viability of the web as platform, please spend some time checking it out.

Chrome also offers some performance, compatibility and reliability advantages over IE, and while some have decried its memory usage for some reason, I use Chrome all day on all my PCs and have never had any issues. Like IE, Chrome also offering settings sync with mobile devices (Android phones and handsets, iPhone and iPad), in this case through your Google account.

And here's a final weird thought:  HTML 5 could even save Windows Phone. If Microsoft could somehow support Chrome-based offline apps in IE, all of its Windows-based IE versions would be able to access a growing selection of Chrome web apps. For example, the Gmail web app already looks and works like the Gmail mobile app when viewed in IE on Windows Phone 8.x. But if it supported offline usage, it would in effect be the Gmail mobile app. Which is crucial because you know Google is never going to make a real Gmail mobile app for Windows Phone.

A Gmail app on Windows Phone? Sort of, yeah

It's just a thought. But on the PC, at least, web apps are clearly the future. So while Microsoft is trying to blend Modern mobile apps and the desktop in the next Windows version, I hope it also working to advance its support of web apps. That's the future, whether it's ready to acknowledge it or not.

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