by Michael Shapiro | June 12, 2012

There's been a lot of talk lately about mobile web apps for events. Web apps, as opposed to "native apps," are the ones that you don't actually have to download to your smartphone or tablet -- they sit online, and you access them through your device's web browser. We very briefly touched on the topic in this month's feature, "Event Apps: Common Pitfalls to Avoid." But after having several follow-up discussions with app developers, I wanted to look a little more closely at what these apps can and cannot do.

Until recently, conventional wisdom has dictated that web apps can run on any Internet-friendly device and are cheaper to develop than native apps; and, on the flip side, that they aren't so effective in venues with spotty Internet connectivity or in situations where large crowds are pushing the limits of the bandwidth available. After all, these apps are online, so one would think they don't work so well if you don't have good connectivity.

That notion, however, has changed considerably, web app developers were quick to point out. The magic ingredient in mobile web development is HTML5, which allows developers to create responsive, robust apps that don't necessarily rely on solid broadband connectivity. Without getting overly technical -- and I realize that for some, merely mentioning HTML5 does just that -- HTML5 allows your device to store a cached version of the web app. Depending on how the app is coded, some or all of the app information may be downloaded to your device the first time you visit that mobile app site online. So, let's say you check out the web app, and even place a shortcut to that app on your device's home screen (which you can do with a simple click in Safari on an iPhone or iPad, for example). The next time you click on that app shortcut, the cached version -- however much was preprogrammed to download -- should start up, even if you're not online.

All apps are created differently, however, and just because an app uses HTML5 doesn't mean it actually behaves like that. It all depends on the intentions of the developer and how the app has been coded. For instance, many native app vendors offer a web app as part of their events package -- primarily to make the app available to more attendees and a wider variety of smartphones -- but by no means should you assume that the web version has the same functionality as that supplier's native, downloadable versions of said app. One native app developer told me, very honestly, that although their web app utilizes HTML5 and comes packaged for every event, it wasn't designed from the ground up to be a top-notch mobile web app. It's merely a complement to their native apps, and it doesn't perform that well when there are more than about 500 attendees or the Internet connectivity is spotty.

On the other hand, some companies have dedicated their product development solely to mobile web apps, and they aim to make the most of what HTML5 can do. EventMobi is one such example. Recently the company began offering web apps that will work offline. From the home screen of such apps, attendees can select "Enable Offline Mode," which forces the app to download all necessary data (while online, of course). From that point, the app will be functional with or without an Internet connection; when online, attendees can manually re-sync data, to ensure they have the latest app info.

Once you've enabled that offline mode, in the case of two EventMobi apps I looked at, you can be totally offline and still see a full program schedule, list of attendees, session descriptions, exhibitor descriptions and the like. That's pretty cool. Now, to say it's fully functional offline isn't entirely true; an "Internet connectivity required" message pops up when you try to utilize many features, such as scheduling sessions, taking notes or providing feedback. Basically, any "interactive" features require connectivity.

Something else to keep in mind on the topic of web apps: There isn't an unlimited amount of storage space in your average smartphone cache, so some of the robust multimedia features found in some native apps -- like interactive exhibitor maps or multimedia downloads -- couldn't properly function offline via an HTML-coded web app. (For that matter, some multimedia features such as these may not function well at all in a web app, even with a connection. But that would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.) Also, the larger the app database being downloaded, the more time an attendee will have to wait until the app is functional offline.

A lot of developers are moving towards more web app development because of the possibilities offered by HTML5, and because development can be done much faster and cheaper than is the case if you have to develop native apps separately for Apple, Android, BlackBerry and Windows devices. App performance can be an issue, too. Event-community platform Pathable ditched its native iPhone app late last year in favor of a newly designed web app, which CEO Jordan Schwartz says is more than 10 times faster than their native version. And some native-app providers, such as Core-Apps, are taking a hybrid approach for some solutions. That company's MemberDirect app is essentially an HTML5-encoded web app that's still downloaded in native-app form, to take advantage of some smartphone functionality that won't work with a pure web app.

When you're shopping for a developer and you're considering a web app, there are a number of things to keep in mind: The potential of HTML5 is indeed impressive, and it should help you get around some connectivity or bandwidth limitations previously faced by web apps. But it isn't consistently employed across all mobile web apps, nor is it truly a magic solution to connectivity problems. I think it's fair to say that most professional app developers don't want you to have a bad experience, though. A good developer should tell you if their app isn't right for your event. Explain to them your needs and venue limitations, and compare the performance of any apps you're considering.