In the battle between mobile web and native mobile applications, access to local hardware like motion sensors and the phone's camera has traditionally been a major advantage held by native apps. One of many announcements made today at Google's I/O developer conference was about a still-forthcoming development in the Android mobile operating system: browser apps will be given access to local hardware capabilities.
Mobile developers have expected this to happen for some time and now await details regarding which of the competing standards in development that Google will support. Hopefully Google will support a standard implementation and not a proprietary system that would fragment the mobile web. Whatever Google does could well end up being baked into the Webkit core and could give hardware access to mobile apps on many more phones, including the iPhone.
Specifically demonstrated today were web apps with access to the motion sensor, camera and to Google's incredible voice recognition. The ability for web apps to use voice recognition and Google's computational ability to interpret a user's "intentions" were put together to demonstrate the kind of mobile virtual assistant feature that Apple got when it acquired Siri. Except Google will be enabling some amount of that kind of functionality to be baked into any web app.
It's not clear when these new capabilities will be opened up to web developers, but this is the kind of feature that could make developing on the Android Web much more appealing. Instant, permission-free, web based deployment and updating of applications with access to local hardware? Look out Apple.
We asked mobile web app developer Jason Grigsby what he thought of the news and this is what he said: "I'm not surprised at all, Nokia's been looking at it, it just makes sense. It seemed like an inevitable thing, but it will be interesting to see what they are implementing: Bondi or JIL, for example. The wholesale application community is trying to standardize access but there are competing standards and efforts. Whatever Google anoints is what will win. Can expect commonality between browsers or will it be fragmented?"
Not surprised, but is Grigsby excited? He believes this will be a major move in the direction of a mobile-specific development platform, unlike all the recent focus on HTML5. "Hell yeah, it's about time," Grigsby said. "We've been focusing so much on HTML5, which was started before mobile took off. With the exception of offline storage and geolocation, the rest [of HTML5] was started before mobile was big. Now Google will build this in Webkit and there's a possibilitiy this stuff will go back into the Webkit core."
Bring on a standards-based, hardware-integrated, mobile web app focused development environment!