Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Web

With all of the buzz around apps & app stores it would be easy to assume that mobile apps have unstoppable momentum and that the mobile web is taking a back seat. It’s worth taking a step back to see how this is all going to pan out. Will mobile apps dominate completely and overwhelm the mobile web or does the mobile web still stand a chance?

To help understand where this is going, think back to this time last year. The iPhone app store was essentially the only game in town. Yes, Android was around at that time but nobody was paying any attention, ditto GetJar (app store for feature phones) and Nokia apps. If any brand manager or marketeer wanted a mobile app, they wanted an iPhone app. So to all intents and purposes, the app ecosystem looked like this:

Mobile ecosystem 2009

But fast-forward to the present day and everything has changed. Android devices are now outselling iPhones by a significant margin—there are 200K devices being sold every day. If current trends continue, there will soon be more Android devices in use than iPhones. So now we have two platforms that you need to consider. But that’s not all—in the meantime Samsung has launched its new bada smartphone OS; Microsoft’s new smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7, will be launched later this year. It’s getting great reviews and Microsoft plans to spend $400m on launch marketing, so even Microsoft may well be back in the fray again. Palm’s WebOS also stands a chance under its new parent, HP. And don’t write off Nokia just yet. They are still overwhelmingly the market leader in smart phones and it’s possible that their star will rise again, adding another app platform to the mix.

Even within the Apple fold things are getting a bit more complicated. Just this year, the iPad and iPhone 4 were released, tripling the number of Apple targets that your apps needs to work with (the iPad and iPhone 4 have very different screen sizes and capabilities to the previous 3 iPhones). So now the mobile app ecosystem starts to look something like this:

Mobile ecosystem 2009

So in 2010, if you’re looking to have a mobile app built, things are starting to look a lot more complicated. The app maker now needs to ask a lot more questions of their client. Do you want that on Android too? Android should arguably be the primary choice since it’ll soon be the biggest platform. What about iPad and Windows Phone 7? And maybe Nokia too? At the very least you’ll now need two apps where one might have been considered sufficient before, and possibly as many as 4 or 5 if you want to cover Windows, Symbian, Blackberry and Bada.

Maintenance also becomes a lot more expensive if you’re replicating effort across 3 or more platforms. There are solutions to make mobile apps that work across multiple mobile platforms but these tend to produce sub-standard apps that don’t really look right or fully take advantage of the device’s features.

So now, in this new landscape, a mobile web app starts to look a lot more appealing. While these mobile platforms are entirely different from an app point of view, they are quite similar when viewed through the lens of a web app, since all of the smartphones have good browsers. Good mobile web sites can be made almost indistinguishable from native apps, if that’s what you want. Yes, there is still work to do to make web apps work across multiple platforms but it is significantly easier than building custom apps for each platform. There are also other benefits too:

  • You can do live updates (no need for constant trips back to the app store)
  • Yhe web apps also work on the desktop
  • You don’t have to deal with the app store submission process
  • You get forward compatibility; this is important. As Tim Berners-Lee said recently: “I encourage you to make web apps now so they work with all types of devices now and in the future.

There is already evidence of a move beginning to happen. Some app makers have abandoned native apps entirely. jQuery Mobile will be released soon. The web versions of Facebook and TripAdvisor look and feel like native apps to all intents and purposes. Note the “Near me now” option on the Trip Advisor website that uses the phone’s GPS.

Facebook's mobile site
Facebook's mobile site

There are still problems with the web app model that need to be solved. The primary one is payment—how do you earn revenue from a web app? How do customers find and pay for their apps since there is no app store? This payment problem will be solved over time, with advertising acting as a stopgap measure. It’s also possible that we’ll see web apps sold in app stores. The customer probably won’t even notice. The discovery problem might be solved through better mobile search.

The success of the Apple mobile app ecosystem has spawned multiple copycats. The resulting fragmentation alongside the reduction of Apple’s dominance of the smartphone space (they’re losing smartphone market share continuously) looks set to make the Apple ecosystem a victim of its own success. Yes, native mobile apps will be around for years to come but their dominance has peaked and is now surely fading. While some applications such as games will likely always be native apps, over the next couple of years I think we’ll see an inexorable trend of native apps switching to mobile web apps, just like is taking place in the desktop space. This may sound inconceivable but remember that just 5 years ago, the thought of doing all your email and writing documents on the web seemed far-fetched, yet now we do so daily. The AOL walled garden is a similar story. Mobile shows every indication of evolving faster than desktop so this change will come about sooner than we expect.

Mobile apps and app stores are a stop-gap measure, like training wheels for the mobile web. It’s time to discard the training wheels and embrace the freedom & possibilities of the open mobile web.

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