Mobile Web vs Native Apps: An Evening With Walmart Labs

December 7th, 2012 by

Whether it’s “Mobile Web is Dead” or “Mobile Apps Will Soon be Dead“, the last two years have seen some sensationalist opinions by journalists on both sides of the web versus apps debate. And the argument erupted earlier this year after Mark Zuckerberg made a searing statement claiming HTML5 to be Facebook’s biggest mistake.

This past Tuesday evening the battle raged on, albeit in a less apocalyptic tone, as I had the pleasure of attending a good old fashioned mobile web vs apps debate hosted by Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer from Walmart Labs (@WalmartLabs).

Sidenote: I’ve seen Ben and Dion (former key WebOS team members at Palm) present a couple different times over the years and they do a great job in making things interesting and bringing a lot of history into the discussion—Tuesday’s meetup was no different.

While this is a well-covered debate and there isn’t much room for new conclusions, it was interesting to hear Ben and Dion’s perspectives as they relate to Walmart’s products. It’s an important to understand that these guys have historically fallen into the “web will win” category, and that tendency wasn’t hidden. However, it was nice to see how that perspective could waver when presented with the reality of needing to build quality products in the present state of the industry.

Regardless of your side in the debate, it is clear that the web approach does present some real problems today. The one we’ve all heard before is the inferior experience—when compared side-by-side, the native experience tends to be significantly superior in many cases. A more specific problem, seen a lot by the Walmart team, is the variations in Android browsers and their handling of JavaScript. We, too, have come across similar issues, but they tend to be greatest in more complex HTML5 apps.

Despite these concerns, the mobile Web experience is imperative for most companies as it connects back to their standard web distribution (email, SEO, ads, etc.), and Walmart is certainly no exception.

Native apps have their share of issues, as well. For Walmart, the lack of being able to iterate and A/B test is a serious problem, especially on iOS. Their current solution is to develop using a hybrid approach, native for critical UI areas and web views for dynamically changing areas. While this might be the best option today, it is far from ideal as it still presents issues with cross-team coordination and management (and, still, those pesky Android browsers).

Moving back to Facebook, it was mentioned that they were seeing a 2x increase in engagement after switching away from their HTML5 hybrid approach to a fuller native experience. This is a pretty remarkable result and speaks well to the speed and quality of native over hybrid/web. But, as with everything else, there are still some problems with moving the product forward, and users not updating to the latest version. To combat this, Facebook has apparently setup newer features to render in a web view on older native builds, which, to me, seems to be a complicated solution to manage.

So what is the best approach? Well, it is very much about what you want to accomplish and how much versatility you need. Having deep understanding of the landscape and devising a plan for long-term maintenance becomes critical.

The bottom line is there are still no easy answers to the mobile web vs apps question. What’s clear is that a good swath of businesses will be best served by pursuing hybrid methodologies and implementing portions of their app experience using web technologies. In turn, this elevates the importance of getting mobile web products done well as the web code and assets can be leveraged to support native apps.  Ultimately, taking the time to develop a flexible and robust mobile web strategy is certainly a must, and always a great start.

Steve Paddon – VP, Products and Services

http://www.meetup.com/BayAreaMobile/photos/12038792/#185324702

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