What if we replace the web with React Native?

Everybody is trying to get you to download their app.

Yay

It’s clear why they want to.

  1. An app allows companies to deliver the best possible user experience and latency
  2. An app icon and app notifications are tools to retain users who come across you once but might forget you exist.

Boo

The story is more complicated if you’re a user. Sure, the app itself is a better experience, but

  • the prompts to download are spammy and cluttering the web (let’s see if Google can fix this)
  • apps take up space on devices with limited capacity
  • apps abuse notifications to try to get you to use them again
  • apps take up mental space for users who have to manage them, browse through them, and get notified about updates (can we just stop doing this already?), leading to a sense of fatigue and clutter
  • downloading an app is a hilariously heavyweight experience that akwardly interrupts a web searching/browsing session

See?

Do I want to go through four screens of content and re-enter my password to download the Glassdoor app to see reviews of one company? No. Do I want to keep the Fandango app on my phone for the three movies I see a year? No. Do I want to download the Houzz app to look at some pictures of living rooms in five minutes instead of now, while I’m currently searching the web? No. Amen to the Atavist for realizing this.

Halp

So the situation is crummy. We want the seamless movement from site to site of the web, but with the power of a native app. What options do we have?

We could hope the web gets better. Web performance and latency will improve. Browsers could evolve to better integrate with native authentication and APIs. Web apps in Chrome could provide offline access, notifications, and a launchpad. Advertising could improve if anybody is still looking at it by then. But even if all these miracles occur, the experience for both creators and users will still be sub-par relative to a native app.

We could hope some app evolves as a platform, similar to the role of WeChat in China. We’re seeing some of this happen with Snapchat/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Apple for news, but it’s hard to picture something in the U.S. that would have comprehensive reach, get past Apple’s regulatory regime, and that we would want to entrust as a new gatekeeper.

What about the OS being better at managing apps? We’re seeing this with Nextbit. But this only solves part of the problem. Without app downloads being small enough and easy enough to be seamless, there will still be friction moving between the web and native.

Ah ha

Enter React Native. Facebook’s masterful tool for making mobile applications much, much easier to write has a really interesting property — the guts of the app are a very small amount of interpreted code, on par with with…the web. (This flexibility is really highlighted by efforts like Apphub.)

Imagine a “browser” that downloads React Native code from web sites and runs it as you go, asking for permissions along the way as it bridges access to native APIs, including payment and advertising. The browser could keep recently-used apps locally along with their assets and data, and provide a launcher for getting back to them.

These apps would be as easy to produce and iterate on as web sites, and they would sidestep the whole download and update experience, but they would still provide all the richness of a native UI and APIs.

Oh well

Sadly, this isn’t going to happen.

  1. There is a classic chicken/egg situation between these apps and the browsers for these apps.
  2. It’s hard to imagine Apple allowing this to happen. Apple, ever controlling, is unlikely to approve anything that disintermediates the app store, branches to so much open-ended functionality, and runs more or less random interpreted code. They’re also unlikely to build it, given their historical lack of interest in openness or moving past heavyweight software.

But a boy can dream.