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Are mobile Web apps ever going to grow up?

Mobile browsers, Web standards power a new breed of apps

By , Network World
July 23, 2009 12:09 AM ET

Network World - In just the past year, several trends have crystallized into a mobile Web platform that promises to transform mobile application development for the enterprise.

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Today's powerful mobile browsers, many based on the open source Webkit engine, are now able to host a new breed of mobile Web applications, of which Google's major revision of Gmail for mobile, released earlier this year, is a good example. These applications can be stored locally, along with user and other data, run inside the browser, and even work without an Internet connection. Written in JavaScript, these applications can run up to five times faster than they could just a year ago, thanks to a new generation of powerful JavaScript engines.

They offer a degree of interactivity and richness not possible before. And, at least in theory, such applications could run with any of the modern browsers that also support the latest relevant standards, such as HTML 5 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 3.

"If you look at browser innovation over the last 12 months, there's been an unprecedented acceleration," says Matt Waddell, chief of staff for Mobile and Developer Products at Google. One area of innovation is the growing adoption of parts of the still-emerging HTML 5 spec. "[HTML 5] represents a brand new set of browser functionality, to enable an entirely new set of Web applications."

Google and Palm are making use of the same technologies in their new operating systems, respectively Chrome OS and webOS.

For enterprise IT, this transformation means faster, simpler development of mobile Web applications that now mimic many of the characteristics of native applications, which are written for and compiled to a specific underlying operating system. The new Web applications, though using the same basic tools as Web widgets and browser extensions, are more sophisticated than both, and much simpler to create than traditional plug-ins written in C or C++.

The tools and skills needed for this new generation of mobile applications are those already in use by numerous Web developers. "If you're going to write an app for a mobile platform in C or Java or Objective C, you have to get an SDK, and hire developers who know these platforms," says Chris Blizzard, director of evangelism, developer relations, at Mozilla, the creator of the Firefox and now Firefox for Mobile (Fennec) Web browsers. "But if you're developing for the Web, you can take advantage of a huge number of [publicly available] libraries that make Web development much easier. The communities around these are gigantic. And the Web is entirely [open-]source based: I can look inside and see how the application works. I can take advantage of that knowledge."

But there are tradeoffs.

One is that the very openness lauded by Blizzard is a potential stumbling block if you need or want to protect some intellectual property.

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