The return of the fat app

Mobile devices are turning the app dev ship around, and everything old is new again

Ensuring Web application compatibility across different browsers could be challenging at times, but it was far easier than developing separate native applications for Windows, Linux, and the Mac. The result was the proliferation of Web apps for nearly every imaginable task, from simple Web UIs to manage home routers to Web-based office suites. Fat apps lost their mojo.

Now it seems fat apps are making a comeback. Thanks to mobile devices, we're drifting back to the fat app model, or at least a hybrid of Web and native app. In many cases, it's not enough simply to reformat a website for mobile browsing. The user experience on mobile devices is just too different than on a PC -- you can't hover over links on a tablet or use pop-up windows, for instance. You can rearrange your website's CSS all you want, but the result is usually a poor representation of the original site, shoehorned to fit on a phone or tablet. The solution? A fat app.

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Take Reddit, for example. The Reddit site is confusing to many users of desktop browsers, but at least it's navigable, and browser extensions such as RES (Reddit Enhancement Suite) improve the experience. But browsing the main Reddit site on a tablet or smartphone is so painful, it has spawned Reddit clients for the iPad like Alien Blue. These apps completely dispense with the layout of Reddit and instead make far better use of the tablet UI than anything that could be delivered solely via the Web. This means a far cleaner and more useful interface, as well as a lighter load on the servers, since the app is making API calls and rendering the data locally versus placing that task on the servers.

In an interesting twist, Alien Blue will soon be available in the Mac App store. What once was a browser-based application is becoming a fat app for the Mac.

Reddit is only one of many. News organizations were among the first to head in this direction, with the New York Times, USA Today, AP, Reuters, and the BBC all offering fat iOS apps, as well as Android app versions of their sites. Nearly all sites with an app version will not fail to mention that fact if you access them via a mobile browser.

Most of these mobile apps either cost money to buy, have separate ads designed specifically for mobile use, or require a subscription to the site. Plainly put, these organizations realize they can present a vastly better user experience and potentially increase revenue by providing fat apps for the popular mobile platforms. Apple's Newsstand also helps here, as it provides an easy path to entry for smaller news organizations to have their own iOS app.

As the Apple Mac Store grows, I suspect more companies will return to the fat app. There's no Newsstand app in the Mac store, but it wouldn't surprise me to see one soon. The same goes for any number of Web-based applications that have survived for years on LAMP or Microsoft's Web stack, but whose developers begin to realize that turning out an iOS or Android client might not be a bad investment. This will be especially true when iOS apps can run natively on Mac OS X. Tweak that iOS app a bit and -- poof -- you have a fat app on the Mac.

Microsoft cannot be missing this boat. Perhaps that's part of the thinking behind Windows 8 and the Metro interface that borrows from Windows Phone 7. While I agree the current state of integration into the Windows UI is Frankensteinish, it may provide the same type of pathway for developers who write for Windows Mobile. Integrating those apps into a full version of Windows becomes less challenging if the two platforms merge, and bringing the touch-driven UI to the full desktop (clumsy as the combination may be) is likely a step in that direction.

And so, like many things in computing, we're starting to circle back on ourselves. We drifted away from the mainframe only to reinvent it, and it appears we may do the same with applications. Rather than a host of bookmarks in your browser, you may find yourself with a host of application launchers instead -- just like the old days.

This story, "The return of the fat app," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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