Web Apps are applications that run on any device, and can be distributed through any store or directly by the developer.
The idea is to offer all the advantages of traditional apps – highly polished, easy to find, install and use – but also being standards-based and not tied to any one apps store. That means that developers don't need to place all their bets on one platform, or carry out ports: they can write once and run everywhere that can support a modern browser. They are also no longer tied to one app store with its possibly onerous conditions; which means that free software apps aren't penalised as they currently are.
Since developers can distribute web apps directly, they can potentially make more money from doing so, but don't need to worry about re-inventing the wheel with their own, probably poorly-supported app framework.
That makes it a win for developers, but others who benefit include the open standards and open source community, and Mozilla itself, which also stands to lose out in a post-PC world where browsers are something only old fogies use. Web apps allow Firefox to be re-invented as a generic platform for every kind of application.
As a solution to the problems of open source in an app-mad world, it sounds too good to be true – and, of course, it is.
For a start, this is more of a vision than a reality. Mozilla offers the following explanation of what it is aiming for:
The Mozilla Labs Open Web Applications project proposes some small additions to existing sites that turn them into applications which run in a rich, fun, and powerful computing environment. These applications run on desktop browsers and mobile devices, and are easier for a user to discover and launch. They have access to a growing set of novel features, such as synchronizing across all of a users' devices.
Getting developers and major players to adopt those “small additions” is one challenge; the other – far more difficult – is defining and nurturing the associated ecosystem that will offer and support web apps. For example, one key question is whether Mozilla will have some kind of web app directory built into Firefox, or whether that might scare off third-party apps stores like Amazon, say, who would see this as competing with them.
So, nice as this idea is from multiple viewpoints, questions remain about how it will be implemented and what the take-up will be. After all, when the iPhone was first launched, developers were only able to offer web apps – native apps were Apple's prerogative. And yet web apps signally failed to take off, and are now outnumbered by native apps by a huge margin.
Maybe web apps need the more advanced features of today's HTML5, which weren't available then, to match the slick-looking native apps. Assuming Mozilla manages to realise its vision of an open web app framework, we should find out soon enough whether the idea flourishes the second time around. Let's hope so – for the sake of open source.