On apps vs. the mobile web experience

The web has come a long way since the Netscape vs Internet Explorer ‘browser wars’ era of the late 1990s. Web browsers are now vastly more capable, and web designers and developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of the kinds of experiences that can be delivered through them.

The rise of mobile has been even more dramatic and was largely unpredicted. Today the majority of internet use is through mobile devices. But this is where a dichotomy arises: Mobile internet use took off in a big way with the launch of the iPhone and, not far behind, Google’s Android platform, but it was the app stores where most of the great work was being done, not through the mobile web browser.

The reasons for this are complex but it mainly comes down to business. Apple’s App Store is a source of income for app developers, and with Apple taking cut of every app sale or in-app purchase it makes Apple a lot of money too. And designing an app for a specific device is appealing for developers because then you know what it is going to be run on. They have tight control. Designing for the web requires much more flexibility and testing generally.

And many apps are indeed great: Everything to do with service X is encapsulated in one place and you don’t have to type in a web address.

But arguably it’s been in Apple’s interests to keep it this way. It is increasingly possible to create app-like experiences through the web browser but Apple’s Safari has been lagging behind here. They are notoriously secretive but one could speculate that this is intentional.

This is where we find ourselves today. Milk offers a neat and powerful (and free!) mobile app for students (and very soon for parents too) but we also offer a rich web-based experience through the Milk web portal

They both have their advantages – in the web version we can make small improvements on a daily basis whereas in the mobile app we need to wait for Apple to review and approve each new version, an unpredictable process that can take several weeks (Android apps are not subjected to this delay). This slows things down. And on the web we can support desktop and laptop PCs, which makes sense for teachers. So the web is great here.

But mobile apps offer things like push notifications and offline functionality, so they still work when you’ve got no signal. Plus you have that neat little Milk icon on your home screen.

Well this all looks set to change. Work being done by lots of very talented people on the Google Chrome browser is bringing app-like functionality to the web browser on Android. Without going into technical specifics, you’ll be able to have that app icon, and get push notifications and work offline – all without the actual app or the need to “download and install” anything from an app store. Milk will continue to provide teachers parents and students with the best possible experience through our mobile (and tablet) app for the foreseeable future. And indeed we are in the process of significantly expanding our app’s functionality right now.

But we believe the mobile web will eventually offer an even better overall experience, and we follow developments in this space keenly. Google / Android are way ahead on this. It will be interesting to see what Apple’s next move is.

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