Native VS Mobile Web Apps & Ideas for Gmail Mobile Web App

I was at the excellent GigaOM Mobilize Conference 2010 last week as we, Automattic, were a sponsor with our WordPress for iOS app.

At the conference there was an interesting panel about mobile web apps VS native mobile apps.

My gut feeling re: this debate is that we are at a place in mobile that is similar to where the web was in early 1994. In 1994, you had very rich desktop clients such as AOL, Compuserve, and others that delivered a great web experience. And you had this Mosaic browser that just got ported to Windows, that everyone was raving about but was clunky, a bit buggy, and served up pretty plain looking web pages. Fast forward a few years, and we all know how this story played out.

I think that the mobile web apps vs native client debate will play out in a similar fashion — in that the mobile web will come to dominate native clients in much the same way — it’s a matter of time — but it’s probably a good 2-3 years out. Also native apps today are moving into games and video that require a big local storage component, and since mobile networks can’t stream fast enough, and today have terrible latency issues, I don’t see how mobile web apps will compete in the short-term for that category. But the advantages of mobile apps — fast iteration, no need for specific hardware testing, instant feedback, built on open source stacks, etc — that’s a winning combination.

This prediction is coming from someone who has invested a ton of time in the WordPress mobile apps, and I still sees plenty of value continuing to invest in native apps for at least the next 2-3 years. It’s also very possible that a hybrid approach will emerge, where it’s a native app embedding a mobile browser, and just using some of the native hardware capabilities and processing power, but in essence a 95% mobile app inside.

So in reference Gmail — after the sessions I was chatting with a few people, and on twitter a few folks were asking me which mobile app was the best. My response:

Re: those asking what the best mobile web app is: to me hands down it’s gmail. Local storage, fast, and better than the built in iphone mail

For context, I use Google Apps for all my email — both work and personal, and have been using Gmail mobile since it was a BlackBerry app back in 2007. With my type of work, I live in email a good chunk of my day.

Scott Eblen who works at Google on Gmail mobile then kindly reached out asking about any suggestions to improve the service. Since I can’t quite fit that into 140 characters, I though I’d blog it. Here is my take on Gmail mobile – the web app – used mostly on my iPhone4 using mobile Safari:

The good:

  • It’s fast and efficient — I use it probably 90% to triage email — erase, star, label, and archive, and about 10% for actual composing and replying
  • Since there are no iTunes approval waits, or extra device testing — the team seems to be iterating very quickly. The new buttons and new placements have improved a ton in the last month. The new feature for moving inside a thread is wicked — wish desktop Gmail had that feature to be honest
  • The local storage feature is great — even offline I can load up recent messages, and it adds to the overall snappy feeling of the web app
  • Related to the local storage item, the web app, unlike many others, loads up with the icons, buttons,etc already loaded
  • The main pane scrolls without showing the location bar now — hard to describe but you’ll notice it when you use it
  • Search rocks, and was the #1 reason I started using it instead of the built-in iPhone mail

What Can be Improved:

  • My number one issue — I can’t choose which email account for sending. It defaults to my ‘default’ which covers me 95% of the time, but wish I could switch to my other accounts
  • Related to the above, would be nice if it matched my account based on the email address that it was directed to. Regular web Gmail does that
  • When I switch between wifi connections or 3G, I sometimes need to reload the page. Refreshing within the app just spins ( happens much less often then it did a few months ago )
  • More of a UX thing with mobile, but I’d like to see better options for inline replying and cutting & deleting. Might be an HTML5 limitation, but a smarter way to select and delete would be helpful
  • Would like to see phone numbers automatically highlighted and clickable for a call. Bonus points if it can launch the google voice native or web app
  • Would like to see some way on the iPhone for Gmail to have access to local hardware capabilities like the camera and GPS. Android OS already supports this, and the HTML5 spec does as well.

So that’s my take — looking forward to seeing what the Gmail team does next. And keep an eye on WordPress in the mobile space — some exciting stuff in the works.

5 thoughts on “Native VS Mobile Web Apps & Ideas for Gmail Mobile Web App

  1. Have to agree with you, the mobile interface to gmail is fantastic. I briefly played with the Android gmail app but I’m not gone on importing all my emails or using IMAP.

    A bookmark to is the first icon on my Android home screen now. I use Thunderbird on my desktop machine, but the web interface to gmail on my phone is superb.

  2. My number one issue — I can’t choose which email account for sending. It defaults to my ‘default’ which covers me 95% of the time, but wish I could switch to my other accounts

    Related to the above, would be nice if it matched my account based on the email address that it was directed to. Regular web Gmail does that

    A thousand times, yes. Everything goes through my Gmail. WordPress stuff, Covered Web Services stuff, personal stuff. I have a dozen or more “From” addresses. The ability to choose a “From” address is the only thing keeping me using the Apple iOS mail client rather than the Gmail web app. It should have parity with the full Gmail web app.

  3. Scott Eblen says:

    Native vs Web Apps on mobile is a constant source of discussion. Worth considering that phones are very personal so people don’t often access apps on multiple devices (a strong incentive for web access). However, tablets appear to be shared much more which counters this trend.

    Thanks for all the suggestions for improvements. Those match a lot of the work that is underway for improving mobile gmail.

    • Hey Scott — thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

      Re: tablets. Totally agree with you. My #1 gripe with my iPad right now is that it doesn’t have user accounts. Wish it even had a guest account so I could let others use it w/o thinking they were accessing all my apps 😉

      And glad to hear you guys have a bunch of improvements along the lines of my suggestions in the queue. If you ever need anyone to help test things you know where to find me 😉


  4. I recently developed this mobile web app and it is currently the ‘Featured Web App’ at is a free mobile web app that finds homes for sale based on the user’s current location. This web app uses the latest technology to cater to the house hunter on the go. By using web based geo-location, the app will display homes near to where the user actually is.

    Many have asked us “Why a mobile app and not a native app?” One of the biggest decisions we made when developing Closest House For Sale was which device to develop it for first. Did we want to make an iPhone app, Android app, or Blackberry app? We did some research and realized that with the new technologies available in web development; we could make it a mobile website compatible with all devices. This eliminated the need to develop for multiple app stores and gives users an easier method to access our service.

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