The False Dichotomy of Native vs. Web Apps

It seems like I have been coming across a lot of blog posts and tweets lately that either explicitly or indirectly critique the notion of designing native apps for mobile devices. In particular, these comments come from the HTML5 and web design camps. The implication seems to be that using the open, standards-based web is always better. It is the default best choice. And, by extension, designing a native app or using Apple’s App Store (or the Android Market, or any other app store) to distribute content is inherently a bad idea.

Well, I beg to differ. And here’s why. Content is like water: it will always find the best possible way to reach its audience, but that doesn’t mean that you can always control it in a predictable or consistent way. The routes will vary, and there will often be many of them.

Take the example of books. If I were to apply the sentiment of the web-app-only crowd to books, I might insist that public libraries are always the best way to distribute books. Public libraries are free and open to everyone, whereas bookstores must be a less desirable option because they are curated, have limited access, and are motivated by profit.

I doubt that the HTML5 and web experts who criticize native apps would like the books that they write to be distributed to people only via public libraries. But wait, that’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Because even if the publishing world is changing, authors still like publishers and bookstores. I know this because I’ve recently become an author. And while I happily do a lot of things for little to no compensation (such as writing this blog), I would have never taken on the enormously challenging task of writing a book without there being some form of compensation for it. Books have value: I’m not going to write one for free.

But the value of writing requires some system of curation, control, and limited access. It just has to. And it may not be fair, and it also may not be ideal. But neither is doing everything for free.

So to get back to the root of the issue: I am a web designer, but I am now also a native app designer. The roles seek to do different things and serve somewhat different purposes, yet there is significant overlap in skill set and ultimate goal: I design to help people get information to readers via the Internet.

Sometimes it’s via a web site, and at other times it’s via an HTML email. Sometimes it’s via a web app. And sometimes it’s via a native app.

And certainly, designing content for one mobile platform is inherently limiting in many ways. But when one of my clients wanted to take his content to mobile devices due to customer demand, content that he spends hours curating and editing, and has been selling to his customers for over a decade in print format, he wasn’t about to start giving it away via a web site or web app. He had to make a choice: sell his content to a limited audience, or give it away to a larger audience? He chose the former.

I respect this choice to recognize and defend value in content, yet recognize that as a web designer I’m caught in a bit of a paradox when I hire out my time to design mobile content using a proprietary operating system and family of devices. But because I don’t believe in the dichotomy of native vs. web apps, I don’t think it’s a problem. Any more than it’s a problem that I choose to blog some of what I write for free, and choose to publish some of what I write via the closed and proprietary systems of the print and publishing industries.

So if you are a strong advocate of the open web and open standards like HTML and CSS, that is awesome: so am I. But don’t let that political position taint any opportunities that you might have to help some people get their valuable content to market via native mobile apps. It’s not a stain on your reputation to apply your web standards skills to more than one delivery channel of the Internet. It’s simply being open-minded and realistic, and being open to opportunities that might first appear to be at odds with what you believe. But they’re not.

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