The Battle of the Mobile Architectures: Will Thin or Thick Client Win?

It’s 2007. The year of the World Wide Web. I should say the decade of the World Wide Web. The browser is the epitome of ubiquity. Everything is either built using web technologies or is retrofitted with a web front end. Google Docs enabled us to edit documents using just our browser. Throw out your old fashioned, bloated client-server technology. The web has won. It’s over, Johnny. IT’S OVER.

Not quite.

Something else happened in 2007. A little firestorm called the iPhone. You know the story.

It’s 2008. Apple launches their SDK and something called the App Store. Firestorm part two. Now with over two dozen mobile applications stores (and counting), over 200,000 apps (and counting), and over 6 billion downloads (and…, you know) as of September, 2010, there seems to be no downturn in sight.  Juniper Research is predicting that by 2015 the number of consumer app downloads will be over 25 billion with revenues of US$32 billion (link). Applications that are highly integrated with hardware features such as GPS, cameras, accelerometers, and sensors have really surprised and delighted consumers. Given this turn of events, it appears the inertia seems to be swinging in the direction of the mobile thick client.

Hold on.

HTML5 is now emerging as a web technology standard that can offer true interoperability among browsers without using plug-in’s and add-on’s. Its planned capabilities include native support for audio and video, geolocation support, client-side database storage, and offline application caching. All of these features will give mobile thin client applications a more thick-like behavior. Android, iOS, Symbian, webOS, and now BlackBerry have native Webkit-based browsers with strong support for HTML5 and other browsers like Opera Mini/Mobile do as well (plans for Windows Phone 7 are notably absent). However, it is important to note that HTML5 is an ‘emerging’ standard that may not be fully fleshed out until 2012. With time for implementation and then adoption, we may be a few more years away from thin client nirvana.

A comparison of mobile thin and thick client with respect to some key attributes is below:

Comparison: thin vs. thick client

So will thin or thick mobile applications ultimately win out? Many think that HTML5 will ‘rule the world’ on a number of fronts, including mobile. It is a very compelling argument, as HTML5 has a very bright future and will make a significant impact on the World Wide Web. However, it’s hard to envision a multi-billion dollar app store market going away any time soon.

The answer is neither will win. And both will win. I think of it like a professional sport which has its yearly champion. It has been very difficult to win back-to-back championships (with the Los Angeles Lakers the most recent exception) and I see mobile applications having a similar ebb and flow. Other application types such as widgets and rich/hybrid models will also have their impact as well. Hopefully, we will all be the winners during this time of mobile innovation.

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