If web apps are so good, why did Apple ditch them for the App Store?

App Store
App Store (Image credit: iMore)

Apple is in a bit of a pickle in Australia right now after it gained the attention of local antitrust authorities over the way it runs the App Store. Authorities are concerned about the fact Apple has control over the App Store and that it's the only way to get apps onto iPhones and iPads. Apple, however, begs to differ. You can use web apps instead, it says.

After initially pointing out that the App Store and iPhone aren't the only game in town – you could use Android and the Play Store, for example – Apple goes on to say that even if you're all-in on its stuff, you needn't fear. The web is here!

Even if a user only owns iOS-based devices, distribution is far from limited to the Apple App Store because developers have multiple alternative channels to reach that user. The whole web is available to them, and iOS devices have unrestricted and uncontrolled access to it. One common approach is for users to purchase and consume digital content or services on a website.

Except, that isn't strictly right, is it? Apple famously tried to go the web app route with iPhone, before ultimately deciding that it wouldn't work and launching the App Store instead..

Rene Ritchie:

Demand for a way to create third-party apps for the iPhone was thunderous. At WWDC 2007, just before the original iPhone launched, Steve Jobs announced Apple's answer to a development platform: Web 2.0 + AJAX (now known as HTML 5). Web apps was the "sweet solution" he offered. He bullet-pointed that no SDK was required, and that web apps could look and function just like the built-in apps. They could even use URL strings to call phone numbers or launch emails.

And sure, people created web apps. But they were less than ideal. In many cases, they sucked. Sure, many of the apps in the App Store suck as well but at least they have access to all of Apple's APIs and frameworks. Web apps? Not so much.

Steve Jobs presentation

Steve Jobs presentation (Image credit: Apple)

In October 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told the world what was next. And it was the App Store and an SDK. The rest, as they say, is history.

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

Fast forward 14 years and Apple now wants Australian authorities to believe that web apps are just misunderstood and yeah, you really can use them to go around the App Store.

I've no problem with Apple defending itself and I'd be worried if it didn't. But web apps? Really?

Modern web apps are leagues ahead of anything possible in 2007, of course. Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are sweet and all. But they still have one big problem – I'll let Overcast developer Marco Arment explain what it is.


Maybe the Australians have a point after all.

Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.

  • They are not in the app store because they are on Safari...
    Native apps on the store, web apps on the...web
    Apple should continue to work on them and to adopt them more deeply but they should stat out of the store!
  • "Except, that isn't strictly right, is it? Apple famously tried to go the web app route with iPhone, before ultimately deciding that it wouldn't work and launching the App Store instead.." This is false. Apple didn't have the API ready for apps, so they used Web apps to tide the iPhone over until the API was ready. Anyone who was following Apple at all at the time should remember this. Web apps can never perform as well as natively compiled apps. It's a fact that played out over the first few years of Apple's foray into iPhone. Lots of anti-Apple people claimed web apps were better. But we all knew better.
  • When the iPhone was first introduced, it only supported 2G/EDGE on AT&T. AT&T had already begun rolling out 3G in their system but it was only available to a very small portion of the country and was VERY slow. Steve Jobs insisted with the first versions of the iPhone that web apps were the way to go and resisted calls for an app store, but the cellular networks were just not capable of providing the necessary data to run web apps. This improved with the iPhone 3G, but there were still not many places where users had access to 3G. Trying to run web apps with only slow-as-molasses 2G/EDGE was an exercise in frustration, and even with 3G it was no picnic, as AT&T never provisioned their 3G infrastructure well enough to utilize the technology to its fullest capabilities. As wifi became more and more available and faster, while the cellular networks still only offered slow data speeds, users were able to just download an app onto their phones with their home wifi and use those away from the the cellular network. Nowadays, with pretty good LTE available to most of the country and the promise of 5G in the future, web apps finally make sense, so I would not be surprised if there were a shift to them in the future.
  • "...so I would not be surprised if there were a shift to them in the future." I would agree with you on that, for financial reasons. If developers could get web apps working acceptably well, they could cut Apple out of the equation and keep all profits without having to pay the App Store fees. It seems like more developers would be looking into this.
  • One word: Control.
  • Lots of stuff here skewed by points of view. If 'people can't find them' is the best detractor you can find, you have no vision. MS already has web apps in their store and you don't even know they are web apps. An amazing amount of stuff can be done in a Windows system purely on the web and in web apps. That's because they went that direction. Apple and Apple developers didn't. Didn't need to, didn't want to or couldn't is up for debate. No reason web apps couldn't be as good as traditional apps for many functions. Apple does need to make that more accessible and functional, if they want to use this as the App Store alternative argument though. I don't see 'Install as app', on browsers on iOS.
  • Depends on what you call an app. Everyone calls a web-capable business model an app these days. If you mean something compiled for and run natively on a mobile device, that’s another subset of apps. I can watch Amazon prime video in a desktop browser, a mobile browser, or a native mobile app for an Amazon Prime membership fee that I pay through my web browser. App Store is a monopoly? Really? But the real question is not is the App Store a monopoly but what is the trade off in value of the App Store among developers, consumers, and Apple. The cachet of Apple is partly a result of Apple controlling the hardware. The bigger complaint might be having to buy a Mac. Apple provides a lot of value to developers in free or dirt cheap but sophisticated development tools and APIs, distribution system hosting and processing, sandbox storage, security like authentication service, map data, billing, taxation, store analytics, etc. Worth 30 percent? The rate is arguable but what would it cost in time and money for a solo developer to sell totally on his own a $0.99 app to 100,000 users (generate, send, and collect on 100k invoices/receipts!), develop or buy his own developer tools, etc. The remaining margins after 30 percent App Store fees are still better percentages than opening your own restaurant... no physical plant or perishable supplies, just laptop and WiFi. Sometimes it seems like the people complaining have no real experience or insight into running a business. Volume breaks on App Store fees might be reasonable (30 percent of a million dollars in sales is a lot more painful to me than 30 percent on 100,000; it’s easier to gain your next 30,000 customers than the next 300,000. But developers have to look at the alternative use of their time and money, not at how much Apple is making. If there was a third party App Store how would Apple maintain the total customer experience which is part of the cachet of the platform and iOS/MacOS ecosystem on which App Store developers rely and from which they benefit, given that Apple customers spend more on average than Android (or defunct Windows phone customers did)? Speaking of Windows, how about that competition from the Windows phone App Store? Given the network effects of technology ecosystems, App Stores may be natural monopolies like utilities but hardly as necessary to life as electricity and water.