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.