Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Are Webapps All They're APPed Up To Be?

It may be me, but the whole concept of webapps is a little vague. Just saying that:

" It [webapps] will enable Ubuntu users to run online applications like Facebook, Twitter, Last.FM, Ebay and GMail direct from the desktop. Making web applications behave like their desktop counterparts improves the user experience dramatically; it's faster and it reduces the proliferation of browser tabs and windows that can quickly make a desktop unmanageable."

...doesn't really tell you much about what webapps are and what they do. Neither does there seem much enlightenment elsewhere on the Internet.

So, for the uninitiated, webapps are web pages that don't need a browser to run. The operating system treats these browserless web pages (almost) like any other application; for instance, you can tab through open apps, lock quick-launch icons to the Launcher, and use the HUD system to search them. So, if you want an application that logs you straight into your GMail or Twitter account without first having to start your browser, select your bookmark, and sign in - webapps are the perfect answer.

Webapps are certainly fast and accessible. They're great for posting those Twitter updates, rattling off a quick email, or editing web-based documents.

So far, so good. But (and it's a big but) this just moves the problem of browser tab proliferation from the browser to the desktop, so the claim that it makes web/desktop integration more manageable is moot. Moreover, the dearth of developed webapps hardly makes the concept of the web browser defunct. I use the word developed loosely: for example, whilst the GMail webapp gets you to your inbox quickly, when you get there, you can't click on hyperlinks in messages and there's no new mail notification integration on the Unity launcher. Suddenly, the promise of a dramatic improvement in speed and user experience, doesn't quite match the practise.

There's more trouble: whilst webapps play nice with Firefox, integration with Chromium (supposedly supported) doesn't work in 14.04 (at least, not for me!). If you want Chromium to be your default browser, you'll have to access your webapps from the Launcher, Dash, or message indicator on the top panel.


Reading between the lines, webapps are an artefact of convergence. Single application icons make sense on small form-factor devices where screen real estate and battery life are at a premium: after all, this is how iOS & Android mobile systems function already.

If true convergence is still an overarching strategy, it makes sense to focus development efforts on a single channel that crosses multiple platforms and if Canonical is serious about developing a mobile version of Ubuntu, this technology will be essential to its success.

Nonetheless, at the moment the desktop versions of these applications are rudimentary and it's not clear what, if any, development work is going on. Clearly, the current mobile OS are far more advanced than the Ubuntu webapps. That said, for q&d access to some of your favourite applications, webapps are a useful addition to the Ubuntu desktop.

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