March 28, 2013, 4:27 PM —
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Weather apps: there are a ton of them, and you probably already have one, whether you want one or not. But you should make room for a really good weather app, one that works on nearly any screen, and makes some of us proud of the web.
But back to the near universal nature of weather data on smartphones. Swipe down the Notification Center at the top of an iPhone and, boom, weather. Open Google Now on Android, and one of the primary “cards” is weather. Temperature, a general description of the conditions, maybe some wind speeds, and a few days of forecast, maybe hidden behind a tap.
Yet how useful is it to know that, for example, “today” calls for “rain” in Seattle? Or that, on a Thursday in March, there’s a “chance of snow” in Buffalo, NY? This is where Dark Sky for iPhone and iPad exceled. It smoothed out those herky-jerky radar maps into nicely flowing animations, and used those animations to tell you when it might rain, right where you’re standing. “Rain in 10 minutes at 123 Elm St.” is the kind of awareness they try to sell you in television ads for smartphones, but you rarely get to experience. There is an app derived from Dark Sky's API, Arcus, if you were interested.
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As you can imagine, people like Dark Sky, and they asked for more things for the app. Rather than inflate Dark Sky into a full-fledged weather app, and start figuring out how to deploy to Android and other platforms, the Dark Sky team built this: Forecast (forecast.io). It’s a web site that’s also a mobile app. They sell one tiny advertisement on it, and they’re quite open about how they aggregate their data. It’s remarkable, it's HTML5, but really, it's just a supremely functional tool.
If you just look at Forecast in a browser, it’s a nice, clean weather site with specific forecasts and really nice radar maps. Click the map to show 24 hours of radar animation. Click the forecasts below to see more about that day, and click “Details” to set your umbrella/sweater/sunscreen plans for tomorrow, hour by hour. You can set favorite locations and save them. Resize your browser window, and the site scales with it. Nifty.
Now load up Forecast on your phone’s browser. Don’t look for an iPhone or Android app; the site is the app. It’s the same site, but scaled for your screen, with the crucial elements still in place, and the important stuff front and center: “Next Hour: Overcast for the hour.” Tap the weather icon to see the nitty-gritty pressure, visibility, humidity, and wind speed. Flip up from the bottom to show the “Next Week” tab. Tap the menu button in the upper-left corner, and note that you can save and restore locations, just like in the browser. Finally, tap “Map” in the upper-right, and watch and scan through those same smooth radar animations.
The tricky part, besides the business model, is where Forecast asks you to save the site as a bookmark on your home screen, to use it as a kind of app. Not too-too hard on iOS devices: click the Share button, choose “Add to Home Screen.” On Android (4.0 and later, at least), it’s a bit trickier: bookmark the site, then head to bookmarks, long-press on Forecast, and choose “Add to home screen.”
Beyond the mechanics, there’s the nature of how people have been taught to use their phones for the last few years. Hear about a neat program or service? Head to your app market and search for it. I think Forecast would benefit from having an app in the iOS App Store, even if all that app does is add some very light native tools to a web view of their (excellent) mobile site. I also think, in an ideal world, it shouldn’t be necessary.
During the 2007 World Wide Developer Conference keynote, Steve Jobs told developers that they could, in fact, create apps for the brand-new iPhone: they were called web sites. The iPhone had a full-fledged Safari web browser installed, and a few customizations could make any site very iPhone-friendly. This conceptual gambit did not go over very well.
It took nearly 7 years, but we’ve reached the point where a browser-based app can store data for you, generate smooth animations, size itself just right for your screen, and, in cases other than the weather, run offline. Forecast doesn’t want to eat up resources trying to be everywhere you might look: they have a memorable URL and a very functional app. Here’s one blogger hoping their thinking is correct.