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.