On Mobile Devices The Browser Is The Operating System

Apps apps apps, it’s all about the apps. Or at least historically that’s where majority attention for mobile has been. Apple’s iPhone truly revolutionized what was considered possible for software application capabilities on a mobile phone. Android may have implemented app store technology and governance slightly differently, however the popularity of Android was also boosted by the huge number of native applications available. Even now, a strong mobile presence is often signified by “Yes we have an app for that”.

While it may seem that web apps have been silently overlooked by all the cool kids on the block, things are trending towards JavaScript Classic and Progressive Web Application based software for mobile. Progressive Web Apps in particular are gaining traction with both providers and consumers. Brands, such as Starbucks and Forbes have realized higher levels of user engagement with PWA’s than native mobile apps. Twitter and Pintrest have found that it’s possible to offer feature-parity to their native apps with PWA’s, and also benefit from smoother new user on-boarding, increased social-shares from PWA’s linkable/zero-install capability, as well as improved security as compared to native mobile applications.

History supports this trend. In the first dot com bubble, web browsers were quite simple and rudimentary, not much more than electronic document readers. JavaScript was supported, but the capabilities were limited and mostly used for dynamic form manipulation and validation. In terms of computing, all the heavy lifting was done by specialized applications running on the operating system of either the desktop or a server in the datacenter. Now the explosion of the internet certainly fueled growth for server-side computing, and a shared vision emerged in the tech community for a whole new world of possibilities enabled by software delivery over the internet. Sun Microsystems was one such thought leader, touting their visions of “the network is the computer” along with the “write once, run anywhere” capabilities of their Java programming language. 

However, it didn’t quite work out that way. While the technologies of the day were certainly revolutionary and capable of things never possible before, software applications remained prisoners of desktop and server operating system hosts. Of course that did not slow down the advancement of technology, as has famously been observed software began to eat the world.

And as the network of computers on the internet grew, the network of open source software contributors has also grown exponentially. This community invested heavily in JavaScript, the language of the internet on the client-side, pushing it into the top echelons of software languages as it has been holding steady in the TIOBE top 10 ranked languages for the past 10+ years. The popularity and ubiquity of JavaScript across the internet helped the language to grow beyond client-side computing into server-side applications as well. Powered by the node runtime, JavaScript became fast enough at runtime for use in cloud native services while the popularity and maturity of the JavaScript ecosystem fosters a faster time to market for easy reach to consumers at internet scale.

So it turns out that while software was busy eating the world, JavaScript has been busy eating software. Sun Microsystems’ vision of the network is the computer with write once run anywhere capabilities has been realized in cloud computing with isomorphic JavaScript engines running on client and server both. No longer a prisoner to any one operating system or another, for JavaScript based web applications the browser is the operating system. This is even more true on mobile devices. Web apps running in the browser are transient across Android and iOS, for all the major mobile browsers including but not limited to Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, Vivaldi, and many others. Progressive Web Applications take it to the next level, delivering a native mobile application user experience, and access to many native mobile device operating system capabilities such as the camera, accelerometer, and on the forefront of technologies with some browsers even AR/VR. 

Recognizing this trend, big tech is once again focusing attention on web browser development, especially on mobile platforms. Microsoft has surprised us with a Renaissance of web technology delivered by their latest Edge Browser. Chrome and Firefox are both furiously rolling out advanced features and their browser applications. Slack and Facebook are exploring specialized mobile web browser development as well, in an experimental shift towards greater in-depth adoption of web apps as an alternative to native only.

Security and privacy is another big advantage for Classic and Progressive Web Apps. As we’ve discussed before — Mobile Apps come with much higher security and privacy risks. Access to your location, contacts, microphone is all quite invasive, and that’s if you don’t get a virus or data-breach. Web Apps on the other hand are natively more secure, and therefore much safer for mobile users.

The arrival of 5G is going to turn it up to 11 for cloud plus mobile technology. Virtual reality, already gaining technical capabilities and support on some mobile browsers, could cross the chasm into the mainstream with real time movie-realistic experiences. Drone video streaming and haptic-feedback controls from mobile devices will give flight to beyond visual range capabilities. Healthcare experiences for both patient and doctor can achieve in-office level care with medical experts anywhere on the planet. And the fastest way to develop mobile software applications that leverage these technologies is JavaScript based classic and Progressive Web Applications. 

These are exciting trends for mobile application development and distribution!

And JavaScript Web Applications networked to cloud based services will continue to be at the leading edge of innovation for mobile devices. We here at MX-Fusion love PWA, it has been a sweet spot for us to reach a broader audience and develop new features faster. It is certainly not without its pain points though, for our app in particular we have an atypical restriction to Android only devices, due to limitations of Digital Rights Management technology as required by any streaming music service. All things considered, we have found that JavaScript based Classic and Progressive Web Application development has been the fastest path to innovation and consumer reach for our app.

Now let’s enjoy a Fusion of Gareth Emery | Lights & Thunder:

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

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