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Suddenly the native app is cool again

Cloud computing may be all the rage, but it's clear that native, client-side applications have a very long shelf-life ahead of them.

If the future is cloud-based applications, we still have a long way to go to realize that vision. Ironically, we may actually be getting ever further away from it even as the cloud assumes central importance in the computing landscape.

Running applications in the cloud is an ambitious dream, but one that keeps stumbling against the reality of dedicated, native applications, particularly those running on mobile devices.

This thought struck me while using Facebook. I find the Facebook UI somewhat cluttered and busy on my laptop, but on my iPhone? It's fantastic.

The same is true of other dedicated iPhone (or Android) applications: LinkedIn, TripIt, and other "Web sites" work much better as single-purpose, dedicated client-side applications than they do as Web sites.

Ironically, Apple originally tried to push browser-based applications on the iPhone, only to have the theory of browser-based cloud applications run up against reality. The reality? The apps were lame.

Google is determined to change this, however, with its ChromeOS and its support for HTML5. It may succeed. But if Apple's experience is instructive, we're not going to be beamed fully into the cloud anytime soon. There are just too many benefits inherent in application code running natively on the client.

Not that the cloud is irrelevant. Far from it. It is the cloud that makes such applications so rich because the cloud serves as a centralized data repository and, in some cases, performs some of the computing on a remote server. As Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco told me:

Mobile native apps are much better on usability. The cloud does not disappear. The data is there. It is just synced on the device.

Or, as Onno Kluyt puts it, "the cloud [is a] hard drive."

And so we're back to the future, with the cloud increasing in importance even as the client-side application cements its place as the launchpad to cloud data. It's not dissimilar from the future then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates predicted years ago.

The rich irony is that Microsoft is therefore tasked with building out its cloud data stores to improve its client-side applications, even as Google builds out client-side applications to reach out to its vast cloud data repositories. Apple? It has the best of both worlds with the iPhone and iTunes. Game on.