Mobile Sites Outpace Native Apps… But What About Web Apps?

Posted by Mike Brittain on February 05, 2010
Mobile

I was excited to read this article about mobile web sites growing faster than native apps, a trend I believe will continue in the future.

Taptu estimates that there are 326,000 Mobile Touch Web sites worldwide, which they say compares to 148,000 iPhone apps in the App Store and 24,000 apps in the Android market. Taptu expects the browser-based mobile web market to grow much faster than the app market.

I’m excited about browser-based apps and the potential of HTML5 as a platform for cross-platform app development.  It’s too bad there’s not a distinction in these numbers between web applications and content sites that simply have layouts customized for display on mobile devices.

Mobile-Friendly, Web Apps, and Native Apps

When the iPhone was launched, Safari became the first mobile browser to really represent web sites as you would see them on a desktop browser.  Before then, surfing from your phone’s browser was a clunky experience with unsupported HTML and CSS features, and web proxies that would reformat or strip out content deemed unfriendly for the mobile browser.  On rare occasions, you might stumble into a site that would push your phone’s browser to a version of the site formatted specifically for display on a small screen.  Today, the term “web app” gets confused with “mobile-friendly” web sites.  I say they are wholly different products.

Native apps are touted for their advantages over web-based apps, which include: 1. better exposure to hardware- or platform-specific APIs, 2. potential for instant revenue streams (payment via app stores), and 3. ability to operate in an offline capacity.

It’s difficult to argue against native apps and games that tie into platform-specific APIs unavailable to web apps.  However, there are plenty of services available for making payments to web sites, but developers need to keep in mind their competition in native apps.  You can’t charge $5/month for access to your web app when a similar app sells for a one-time $0.99 fee through an app store.  Finally, the point of offline access is fairly ironic given that so many native apps are simply wrappers for network APIs and cannot run without a network connection.

So when I talk about web apps, I don’t just mean a mobile-friendly web site.  Rather, I’m talking about the potential to build rich applications that can run in a browser.  Using HTML5 capabilities like offline data storage and object caches, web apps can mimic many of the same features built in native apps but have the ability to reach across platforms and devices.

My own definition of web app an application that:

  1. Is written with core web technologies and runs in a browser,
  2. Provides more utility than simply reading pages of content,
  3. Is responsive to user interaction and gives the same impression that an installed app gives, and
  4. Is device and platform independent, indeed it should be irrelevant whether it is displayed on a mobile phone, a desktop computer, or any other device.

The Web App Findability Problem

Platform-specific app stores have risen up as clearing houses for apps. Users are being conditioned that the term “app” means something you download and install on your phone.  App stores are backed by big marketing dollars and ad campaigns because they provide a competitive advantage for their platform and create new revenue streams.  Web apps, on the other hand, provide neither.

There are online directories of web apps to solve this problem, but these don’t have nearly the visibility or marketing of today’s app stores.  It would be difficult for consumers to even consider web apps when they have a nice, easy shortcut to their platform’s app store built right into their phone. Even Apple, who claimed at the release of the first iPhone that web applications were enough, do not provide a means for finding web apps from their phone.  Indeed, their own web app directory doesn’t render in a mobile-friendly format.

Visibility is a key barrier for web apps.

Where Will Web Apps Get Their Exposure?

I’ve thought over a few possibilities for building the web app market, which are outlined here.

First, app stores could expand their listings to include web apps. There are already plenty of free apps in the stores.  Web apps would not create any new low price points.  I see business concerns with this direction, though.  App stores have their own services to charge for paid apps at the point of purchase.  A web app is never downloaded, so it is difficult to charge a toll for access.  Furthermore, web apps might require subscriptions or usage fees, but would be open to choose from a variety of payment gateways.  Owners of app stores would likely see this as losing out.

Search engines could provide niche listings for web applications in the same manner that news, shopping and image search reasults are handled by Google.  Search engines are supposed to provide unbiased rankings and could probably fit an app directory well.

The last idea would be to identify web applications using a new “.app” top-level domain, similar to the .mobi TLD used for mobile compatible sites.  The term “app” has already become part of the vernacular and its use as a TLD could easily identify a URL as a pointer to an application (desktop or mobile) as opposed to just mobile-friendly web pages.

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