For Leading Web Sites, Mobile Tide Turns Toward Full-Fledged Apps
A year and a half ago, the world’s major Web companies extolled the virtues of Web-based HTML5 development. They said Web apps accessed through browsers would be more consistent and accessible for users who have different phones, different operating systems and different versions of those operating systems.
Plus, they didn’t want to waste time building and maintaining native apps when the Web was the way the mobile world was going (hopefully).
That plan didn’t really work. The mobile Web apps often were slower and didn’t fully make use of the capabilities of each phone. It was almost like a voluntary handicap.
So today, both the Web giants and the most promising Web start-ups are going native. Every press briefing I go to, I hear people brag about how “we didn’t just port” the latest mobile app from one platform to another.
You see this with Facebook, which recently (finally!) rewrote its iOS app to be a native app, seeing significant gains in speed. Or with Pinterest, which just launched its first Android and iPad apps, which the company’s founders emphasized were lovingly crafted for each platform. Tumblr also recently overhauled its apps, and the mobile-first companies like Instagram and Foursquare figured this out from the start, of course.
The latest is the Q&A service Quora, which today launched its first Android version, for both phones and tablets including the Kindle Fire.
Quora is not a huge site — it reportedly gets single-digit millions of visitors per month, and it’s only available in English — but it’s well-respected for its content, product and team, led by early Facebook programmers Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo.
Between its iPhone app and mobile Web site, Quora says it already gets 25 percent of its traffic from mobile. So Cheever, with whom I met yesterday, has shifted his internal focus entirely to mobile, he said.
For the Android app, Cheever said, “We really decided to make this really first-class, and do everything the way people who use Android phones would expect to work.” That means integrated voice search, homepage widgets, landscape mode, the works.
The Quora app does use some HTML5, Cheever said, in instances where Web views have better performance.
So this is actually a bit more subtle than native versus Web; what’s important is the new Quora app is handcrafted for the Android environment.
“Some people tried to be almost religious about HTML5, and the reality is the technology and performance isn’t here yet,” Cheever said. “The idea we wouldn’t invest in making great experiences seems kind of silly.”
Okay, but what about the problem of Android fragmentation across all the different devices and versions? Cheever replied that in some cases mobile support for Web features seems to be more fragmented than support for native stuff.
What about the commitment required to move to new platforms beyond Android and iOS (Quora actually doesn’t have an iPad version yet either)? Cheever also downplayed that issue, saying Quora is considering Windows Phone, but he doesn’t really see any other significant platforms beyond that.
Making the commitment to these dedicated apps is already paying off for Quora, Cheever said. That’s because so many people use their phones as computer replacements or equivalents. Offering a mobile app that does everything a Web site on a PC can do has encouraged a higher level of participation. Quora users don’t just consume content on their phones, they also create it.
So far Quora users seem to ask questions, write answers and read other people’s contributions from their phones just the way they do from their computers. There isn’t demonstrably more location-based content or quick on-the-go questions, as you might expect from mobile users, according to Cheever. “We expected to have more divergence,” he said. “It’s almost surprising there isn’t a big difference.”