Mobile apps: History repeating itself

I recently came across an old web article called “Mobile Applications, RIP” by Michael Mace (formerly of Palm). This article proclaimed the death of native mobile applications, based on lack of compatibility and ease of development. The author proclaims the future of mobile will be in the mobile web:

The business of making native apps for mobile devices is dying, crushed by a fragmented market and restrictive business practices. The problems are so bad that the mobile web, despite its many technical drawbacks, is now a better way to deliver new functionality to mobiles.

We've seen this movie before

Since the article was written in February of 2008, 5 months before the release of the iTunes App Store, it’s easy to dismiss this as a prognostication gone horribly wrong. And looking at some of the figures, there are certainly things that happened that were unexpected: the number of native mobile apps exploded with the release of the iPhone SDK and Android SDK, and so far the number of apps keeps growing. But read the article again. Why was the native mobile app market so horribly broken in early 2008? Anyone who was there at the time knows that developing J2ME apps was difficult. Every phone had a different implementation, and more often than not applications needed to have different code and a different release for every phone.

Instead of the flash flood of developers moving to the mobile web, Apple made sure it was all diverted to the iPhone. Native apps changed from being on death’s door to the next big thing. And while some people have been making money at this, there’s really not many. The rest of crowd, already defeated by the App Store, moved onto Android as the next new ground to conquer. Here is where history is repeating itself:

We created a series of elegant technology platforms optimized just for mobile computing. We figured out how to extend battery life, start up the system instantly, conserve precious wireless bandwidth, synchronize to computers all over the planet, and optimize the display of data on a tiny screen. But we never figured out how to help developers make money.

Android is an elegant, developer-friendly system. It’s on track to beat Apple in market share, and it’s closing in quickly on RIM. However, it’s yet to prove that it can make developers money. And while the fragmentation is not nearly as bad as it was with J2ME, there’s no denying that it exists and it is a problem. And when the cost of developing a native iOS and native Android app becomes too great, where do you go? Well, you go to HTML5 and the mobile web.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not proclaiming the death of anything. But it’s amazing to me that despite how different the mobile marketplace looks, we are still facing the same problems and solutions. Plus ça change?

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