Beware of Web Apps in disguise

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Thanks to Web Runtime Widgets (WRTs) and QtWebKit, presenting web apps as native apps has become a quick and efficient way of publishing to Symbian devices. The same applies on other mobile platforms with their equivalent development tools too. However, when anyone can sell an application in the Ovi Store which encapsulates any website, do we need to become cannier shoppers? Read on for a cautionary tale.

The Qt development platform allows developers a lot of flexibility and speed. Part of this has been the use of QtWebKit which embeds a frame into an application displaying content from the world wide web. This can be a way for developers to present a ‘Web App’ (i.e. a program you use via a browser) as a native application. Prior to Qt, developers could, and still, use WRTs to do the same job. In and of itself, this is not an ‘evil’ practice. They can provide quick links and custom icons to commonly used web services, such as Asri Al Baker’s iPhone GMail WRT. Added functionality can be wrapped around web content too, such as found in Pixelpipe’s GmailApps Browser.

While researching for applications to review for All About Symbian, I came across two £1.00 applications which appealed to me, Mathematics and Chemistry. Both allow you to enter queries about their respective subjects and they then return lots of valuable information, making them great reference tools.

Based on their appearance and need to be constantly online, they were clearly web-based applications. As a cause for further suspicion, neither application had any instructions about query syntax. I began investigating which maths website Mathematics might pulling its data from so I could work out how to use it fully, and share that information in the review.


Mathematics giving chemical information and Chemistry solving equations!

As I searched, the obvious source presented itself as Wolfram Alpha. Sure enough, Wolfram Alpha worked with the same syntax I’d used in Mathematics, and both presented the exact same content. Given that Wolfram Alpha will attempt to answer questions on any topic, I entered “H2O” into Mathematics, and was presented with the exact same answer as the Chemistry application had given, and it was exactly the same as given by Wolfram Alpha.


Left: Wolfram Alpha, Right: Mathematics.
Both giving the same information, but the former is a free website, while the latter is a paid application.

At this point one could forgive the publisher for not making these applications free if there was no other way to use Wolfram Alpha on Symbian devices. However, not only is there already a free (ad supported) Wolfram Alpha Mobile WRT, but there is a mobile website provided by Wolfram Alpha. All you have to do is visit with your browser of choice! Rather, the publisher created two separate applications, asking money for both, while knowing they were essentially the same product.

Of course, this is just one example; and you should obviously avoid buying Mathematics and Chemistry. It’s difficult to say how many more examples like this are to be found on the Ovi Store, as it’s something of a needle in a haystack. However, another trend I have seen are the ‘DIY’ RSS based applications being sold on the Ovi Store. (It’s worth mentioning that our All About Symbian RSS app is, of course, available for free).

Ultimately, it’s your money and your decision on what you think each title is worth. However, this cautionary note is here to remind you to look around, because there is often a free alternative, whether it be native application or something you can access via your phone’s web browser. If you are stung with a unsatisfactory Ovi Store purchase, you have to call Nokia Customer care, which is far less convenient than the Android Market Place.

David Gilson for All About Symbian, 14th August 2011