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A fight is breaking out among software developers: Web apps or native apps?

December 18, 2009 | 10:35 am

La-times-iphone-appThere's an ideological war being raged on the desktop and in your cellphone. You may not realize it, but you're actively taking sides ...

... every time you log into Gmail or fire up Outlook, when you launch in your mobile browser versus using our app, when you listen to music on Pandora's website instead of iTunes.

On one side is Loren Brichter, the maker of a wildly popular Twitter application for the iPhone called Tweetie.

Brichter builds dedicated apps that are designed for and catered to specific platforms. Tweetie takes advantage of iPhone-centric features and adheres to Apple-like design.

In the other corner is David Kaneda, a champion of up-and-coming Web technologies heavily reliant on the Javascript framework. In a public spat recently, Kaneda squawked at Brichter on Twitter and pledged to replicate Tweetie inside of a browser.

"I dare you," Brichter shot back from his Atebits Twitter profile. "PROVE ME WRONG BABY! NATIVE APPS 4EVA!"

OK, that's just about as geeky as it can get. But the underlying idea has profound effects on the way we interact with our computers.

Everything in the browser must adhere to a limited set of standards. HTML5 will add some crucial things on top of the current limitations, and in order to do anything more complicated, Web designers must resort to bulky plug-ins like Adobe's Flash.

Dedicated apps can be much more flexible. Whereas a Web page may look and function differently depending on the browser and the version of that browser, a program will function about the same on every system -- as long as that system is the one it's designed for. An app built for Windows won't work on a Mac. But a Web app can be cross-platform.

The same is true in mobile. IPhone owners find it hard to switch away to a Palm Pre or Droid for fear that they'll lose some of their favorite apps. For that reason, some developers are looking to the mobile browser as the savior. Keep your apps regardless of software.

Kaneda has successfully ported some unique features from the Tweetie app into his project called jQtouch. It won't be a fully-fledged copy of Tweetie but a proof of concept.

"I don't think it will feel right," Brichter said on the phone. "Tweetie is deceptively complicated."

After some trial and error, Kaneda makes some concessions on Web apps. "There's obviously a ton of benefits to native apps," Kaneda said on the phone. "To achieve the level of performance that Loren achieves, you can't go Web."

Indeed, developers can create more flexible, snappier apps when designed in a system's native language. But as browsers get more clever and systems more integrated with them, the line between what warrants a separate application and what can be done as a Web page is being entrenched in a thick layer of milky-white Bay Area fog.

Google is making an operating system for netbooks that is entirely browser-based. As you might imagine, the maker of Gmail, Google Calendar and Chrome OS is quite the fan of Web-based software.

"I like Web apps over native apps," said Sam Schillace, an engineering director on Google products. "The browser is the ultimate wild card. You can put your software on any smart phone."

Every smart phone, just like every computer, has a browser. You don't need to write separate versions of apps for each platform -- even though Google does do that in some cases. The company makes several apps for the iPhone including Maps and YouTube, which come packaged with the device. The Google Android mobile OS has its own app marketplace.

For some newer apps that require access to the phone's camera, Hugo Barra, Google's international mobile product lead, told PaidContent, "It requires us stepping out of the browser for now."

Schillace is used to working with limitations. He founded Writely, a word processor website that was the basis for Google Docs. Having been writing software for decades, he's accomplished plenty in more restrictive digital environments.

The same philosophy was employed by Carl Sjogreen and Adrian Graham with their city directory. Nextstop launched on Tuesday and employs some rather advanced features of HTML5.

"We really wanted to build a Web app that, from a performance standpoint, really rivals a native app," Graham said on the phone this week.

But as rival apps on the iPhone and Android add wild augmented reality features for navigating cities, such as Yelp's Monocle -- something a website can't do -- the war marches on.

-- Mark Milian

Photo: IPhone image. Credit: Apple