No, honestly, web apps are back

April 26, 2024

It’s 2024, and web apps are making a comeback. Wait, what? Aren’t they supposed to be dead and buried? I know, I can barely believe it myself, but here we are. So, hold on to your keyboards because it might be time to rethink what we’ve been told to believe for the last 20 years.

For the uninitiated, web apps are applications created using web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. What we’re usually referring to, though, are progressive web apps PWAs, which are websites that act like apps rather than traditional websites. Yes, I know—there are acronyms the whole way down—it’s confusing as hell.

What’s old is new again

So, I was tuning in to the latest episode of The Vergecast (because what's better than tech banter while sipping your morning coffee?), and guess what was stealing the spotlight? Yep, I didn’t see it coming either—web apps. The discussion centred mainly on the upcoming refresh to the Sonos app and their decision to create a full-fledged web app for their desktop users.

This caught me off guard a bit. Had I suddenly fallen through a wormhole into 2003? Let me run that again: a major technology company has created a web app that isn’t just a link to one of the walled gardens? No cross-platform jiggery-pokery. Just a straightforward use of web technologies for use on the web.

To be on the safe side, I’ve booked a hearing test for next week. I’m also building a time machine to transport me back to the present. I’ll have more news as the situation develops…

Breaking down the irony

Now, here's where it gets juicy. It’s not just journalists and commentators picking up on this shift in perspective. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And look, I’m heavily ingrained in the Apple ecosystem. I know that for almost half a decade, we’ve been told to look over there at the shiny native solutions and not back here at the graveyard of web technologies and browser inconsistencies. And yes, I say this as a developer of web apps who, for the last two decades, has been pretty sure I’d backed the wrong horse.

But recently, I’ve noticed a fascinating trend.

While web apps were once tossed aside like yesterday's memes, they're again taking centre stage. Or waiting in the wings, at the very least. Funny how things come full circle, right?

Even Apple, with its much-vaunted, recently released, and hilariously expensive Vision Pro, is kinda nodding in agreement. Whether it’s because they couldn’t convince the big players to create native apps for their new platform or that they’ve suddenly had one helluva change of heart, who knows (well, we all know, but I’m trying to be a kinder person of late). In any case, with a vacuum building, it turns out that web apps aren't just holding their own; they're stealing the show.

On Vision Pro, apps such as YouTube and Netflix are served up via the web. There is no native equivalent. Some of Apple’s apps are not native, either. Let’s be clear: They’re not web apps rather iPad apps dressed up in a Catalyst wrapper. But when the platform vendor hasn’t taken the time to rework their own apps into native solutions on their shiny new platform, you have to ask yourself why anybody else should bother either.

This may change as the platform matures. This may not develop into the chink of light I believe it could be. But for Apple to release a brand new platform and to offer up non-native apps is, well, ironic, to say the least.

From Figma to everywhere

Outside AppleWorld, other killer examples of web apps are coming to the fore.

Like many of my design brethren, I am over Adobe’s stranglehold on the industry. With a new generation of design and development apps available, there has never been a better time to ditch Adobe products. I was an early adopter of the Affinity suite but had held on to Adobe XD for way longer than was rational, as I assumed at some point Affinity would release a competitor.

When that didn’t happen, and, thankfully, the Adobe-Figma buy-out went south, I was galvanised into taking note. What was all the fuss? It turns out it was all merited.

I mean, other than being light years ahead of XD in every conceivable way, it is also a web app at its core. Sure, they have a version you can download for Mac or Windows, but those are built on top of web technologies, and it also runs fully featured in a browser. Built once, with one codebase.

And Figma isn’t the only one. Google has been playing this game for the longest time with its suite of apps. Microsoft Office is right there with them. Netflix. Trello. Uber. eBay. Spotify. And even Instagram—finally.

With the latest cross-browser advancements in web technologies—apart from Safari, but let’s not open that can of worms—the web is once again flexing its muscles, making solutions such as Electron seem like relics of the past. Who needs them when you've got browsers that play nice with (almost) every setup?

But I want a native app, goddammit!

Look, I love a native Mac app as much as the next Apple fanboy. Or, let me rephrase that: I loved a native Mac app as much as the next Apple fanboy before Apple gave up on its own operating system. I was right there championing lickable UI. There was a time when I would favour well-crafted, native Mac apps over the competitors, sometimes simply because they looked like first-class Mac apps, feature set be damned.

But those days are gone. And, honestly, with my other hat on as a brand designer, I’m pretty bored of Apple dictating to me how I should make my products. And you should be, too.

As a fervent believer in the power of branding, I cherish developers who are steadfast in maintaining their own company’s brand identity and allowing it to flourish in their apps. It feels like we were all hoodwinked into believing that the Apple way was the only way and that to be part of the club, you had to devalue your brand and favour Apple’s aesthetic instead. And yes, I know, Apple’s aesthetic is top-dollar, no question. Designers have spent decades riffing on their direction, myself included. The Human Interface Guidelines are a paragon of design fundamentals.

But this practice would not be advised in any other sphere of brand philosophy. Your brand is a massive part of your business. It sets you apart from every other company on the planet. It is an investment that should be nurtured and protected.

So why have we been willing to tear all of that up and bow to Apple’s preferences? To allow their branding to seep into our products? To believe that the brand guidelines we have built specifically for our customers and their needs are to be discarded when it comes to anything built on Apple’s platforms? Especially now, given they are not consistent in their own approach nor, I believe, as capable of delivering first-class Mac apps themselves?

As a business owner and a designer who builds brands for other businesses, I would prefer a consistent brand identity across all the channels I make available to my customers, ensuring they receive the experience best suited to their needs. I think Mac users are wise enough to deduce how something works, even if all their apps look and work differently—they don’t need mollycoddling; computers have existed for a while now, would you believe?

Again, web apps allow your brand to sing out. As should have always been the case.

The evolution continues

Sure, tech trends come and go like 90s fashion, but here's the plot twist: the threat from native apps isn't as menacing as it once seemed, nor are they the prerequisite they once were. Businesses are waking up to the fact that web apps aren’t an afterthought or something they have to do through gritted teeth. Rather, they can be value-adding and cost-saving to boot.

And yes, we continue to hear some raconteurs in the tech bubble wax lyrical about the superiority of native apps. And, honestly, I’m not here to rain on their parade. I love my iPhone. I know when something is better suited to native technologies. There’s a time and a place for everything.

But, despite the naysayers preaching doom and gloom for the web, the truth is it's evolving. Sure, it's not the free and open playground it used to be, but that's probably not the nightmare it’s made out to be, which was largely mythologised to support the notion that native apps were superior anyway.

Innovation finds a way, even in the most unexpected places. And innovation right now is leading us to take another bash at web apps, at a time when the core technologies that support them have never been better. If there were ever a time for a comeback, then it’s now.

Why bet on web apps?

So, let's talk brass tacks. Why should businesses bet on web apps?

Well, for starters, they're versatile, accessible, and cost-effective. You can spin up a web app anywhere, from any device. If you’re a good web practitioner, you’ll follow best practices that bake in accessibility from the get-go. And you don’t need to develop separate codebases to satisfy the whims of every tech Tom, Dick, or Sally.

Oh, and let’s not forget that if you sell your app on the web, your customers remain yours, not Apple’s or Google’s. And, you don’t lose 30% to them for the privilege of giving away that vital customer relationship. I know the notion of customer service has long been prised away from us by tech companies that insert themselves into every facet of our lives, but it needn’t be that way. And by building on the web, it isn’t.

Embrace the web renaissance

So, here's the bottom line: the web is alive and kicking, my friends. And as businesses continue to set aside budgets for in-house large-scale applications, from everything to unique onboarding experiences, via tools to automate and streamline operations big and small, and right through to complete SaaS solutions, web apps are once again unfurling into the light, tentatively but more capable than ever.

Whether you're a seasoned entrepreneur or a budding startup, I believe it’s safe to get back in the water and embrace the web renaissance. Yes, honestly, I’m not pulling your leg.

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