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How Apps Won The Mobile Web

The web might be the dominant platform of our time, but more people than ever prefer to experience it through Google and iOS mobile apps.

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Six years into the mobile revolution, apps dominate the web. It wasn't supposed to be that way.

The web was supposed win. It was supposed to be a platform for everyone, open and unencumbered by rules. And for a while it was winning: The web became the foundation of today's great consumer Internet businesses: Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It was even embraced by Apple and Microsoft, albeit cautiously.

But the web's victories have mattered mainly behind the scenes, on the back end, among servers and data centers. On the front end, in the web browser, the web's evolving technology for programming and presentation has been overshadowed in recent years by native apps, software written primarily in Java or Objective-C for Google's Android or Apple's iOS operating system rather than in open web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It's a story that can be seen in the rise of Mozilla and its recent struggle for relevance.

[Breaking apps makes them stronger. Read Can You Deliver Antifragile Mobile Apps?]

Blame mobile devices, which accommodate the touch-based interaction of native apps more elegantly than web apps. The web evolved to accommodate the keyboard-and-mouse-based interaction of desktop computers before being retrofitted for mobile. And though mobile-oriented JavaScript frameworks have addressed these issues, the web's desktop legacy still gets in the way.

From January through March this year, according to online metrics firm Flurry, app usage accounted for 86% of the average US mobile consumer's time, a figure that works out to two hours and 19 minutes a day and represents an increase of six percentage points year-over-year. Time spent accessing the web from mobile devices during this period slipped to 14%, down from 20% during the same period last year.

"The data tells a clear story that apps, which were considered a mere fad a few years ago, are completely dominating mobile, and the browser has become a single application swimming in a sea of apps," said Simon Khalaf, CEO of Flurry, in a blog post.

The turning point, as measured by eMarketer, another metrics firm, came last August when time spent on mobile overtook time spent on laptops and PCs.

Consumers spent the largest portion of their time (32%) interacting with gaming apps, a percentage unchanged from last year. Social and communication apps, including Facebook, claimed 28% of users' time, up from 24% last year. Entertainment and utility apps maintained their 8% share of users' time while productivity apps saw usage double to reach 4% of overall time spent using mobile devices.

Looking at the mobile market, Khalaf sees opportunity, noting that Facebook and Google between them receive less than a quarter of the attention of US mobile consumers. He also points to ComScore figures indicating that the top 10 online franchises absorb less than 40% of consumer attention.

Khalaf observes that while Facebook's share of mobile advertising revenue matches up with time users spend on the network, Google's share of mobile advertising revenue is disproportionately high as measured against the time mobile users spend with Google apps.

Other apps are not receiving a share of mobile ad spending that's proportional to the time spent by users in those apps. These apps "command 65.3% of time spent but only receive 32% of ad revenues," said Khalaf. "This represents a massive opportunity for applications, including gaming apps, to monetize through advertising."

Yet the appeal of native apps over the mobile web is mainly about the superior user experience. As John Gruber put it last year on Daring Fireball, "Web apps are the best way to reach the most possible people with the least effort; native apps are the best way to create the best possible experience."

Now imagine the best possible experience with ads. Maybe the mobile web would be better received without them.

IT organizations must build credibility as they cut apps, because app sprawl is often due to unmet needs. Also in the App Consolidation issue of InformationWeek: To seize web and mobile opportunities, agile delivery is a given. (Free registration required.)

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/3/2014 | 10:56:05 AM
Apps vs. Mobile Web or Apps + Mobile Web?
There is a middle ground, which seems to be widely used in business applications, where the app is a thin shell of device-specific functionality that serves up mobile web content -- essentially, a specialized browser for content. Maybe not so much for games, but anything build around content or server-based applications.

Am I wrong?
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
4/3/2014 | 3:47:24 PM
Re: Apps vs. Mobile Web or Apps + Mobile Web?
There is a middle ground, though it might be more accurate to look at the Web as a middleware layer in the case of hybrid apps. It's not quite the right analogy because middleware isn't supposed to be part of the UI. But once you're wrapping HTML in a native app frame, it's the native app that matters from a distribution standpoint. There's something to be said for maintainability and cross-platform consistency in such cases -- native app SDK changes are less likely to affect data presented through a Web-based window.
User Rank: Ninja
4/5/2014 | 2:36:40 PM
Re: Apps vs. Mobile Web or Apps + Mobile Web?
Sometimes app developers like to circumevent the rules that exist within native app stores. That's one of the biggest reasons for going the web route. However, whenever I hear this from a developer I cringe; people want to use native apps because the experience is so much better. It is really as simple as that.

Do I want the win to win? Actually, I do. But I just don't see that happening. That's my intution for mobile, especially on smartphones. Shrinking the web down to such a small screen just doesn't seem to work, at least not for me. 
User Rank: Apprentice
5/31/2014 | 3:23:27 AM
Re: Apps vs. Mobile Web or Apps + Mobile Web?
"There is a middle ground, which seems to be widely used in business applications, where the app is a thin shell of device-specific functionality that serves up mobile web content -- essentially, a specialized browser for content.

I agree with this point.  I have also noticed a number of apps where they have the look and feel of a mobile website and do not work offline.  These apps typically have little to no features when compared to the mobile website.

In contrast, there are apps which work in the context of a smartphone.  Their functionality can change based on your location, battery level, wireless signal, etc.  Apps which simply mirror a mobile website don't have that.
User Rank: Author
4/3/2014 | 4:10:25 PM
Not a surprise
I think the point made in this article:  "Yet the appeal of native apps over the mobile web is mainly about the superior user experience." sums up why mobile apps have gained an upper hand over mobile web design -- and also why mobile access to the Web has also grown.  I'd argue, if apps hadn't come along, we'd still be using our smartphones to go on the Web, but it would be more painful, and less productive .
User Rank: Ninja
4/10/2014 | 12:18:55 PM
Re: Not a surprise
I agree, we'd still figure out a way to use the web on mobile devices.  It really points out the importance of having a native app, especially in highly competitive markets.  If I can book a hotel or flight easier on a native app from one company, chances are that I won't even bother to look at other websites or less-functional mobile apps.  This means that marketing in a way is going to be heavily influenced by the customer experience from the app versus all the marketing content sitting on the website (ofcourse this has limitations, but for most consumer basic services, this has a strong truth to it). The shift from focusing on delivery via web and now delivery in-app is the reason why we will continue to see higher mobile interaction with companies versus via web.  Or maybe our patience with technology has just hit it's peak limit of 15 seconds?
Stephane Parent
Stephane Parent,
User Rank: Moderator
4/4/2014 | 12:48:13 PM
OS Agnosticism
The reason we switched to browser apps from client-server apps, in the 90s, was to hide the operating system from the end-user and the developer.

We've now come back to a client-server - if you prefer, client-cloud - on our mobile devices. I have way too many apps on my phone. Putting them in a folder to avoid excessive sprawl leads to "where did I put that one again?"

There's just so much your MDM can do to help the developers across the various mobile OS.

Hopefully, we will come back to something less scattered than what we currently have to face.

User Rank: Apprentice
4/4/2014 | 12:50:30 PM
It more than superior user experience
What is often missed in this discussion is that mobile apps inherently work differently than mobile web. 

Successful interaction via mobile involves reimagining the way enterprise apps work in general.  Platforms like Twitter and Facebook successfully capture the ability to pull your phone out of your pocket, engage with the application for 15 seconds and receive benefit.  This ability to leverage micro engagement is key to what makes the app experience far exceed that of the browser.

Its not about app or no-app its about the ability to time share with life.

User Rank: Author
4/4/2014 | 6:14:10 PM
Re: It more than superior user experience
toddvernon01, - You make a great point about the notiong of "Microengagement" - delivering a perceived benefit in 15 seconds or less. That's a key part of why the mobile experience often feels better than the mobile browser experience. But it's also a way to think about developing better mobile browser experences for content that's better served there.

User Rank: Author
4/7/2014 | 8:48:05 AM
Re: It more than superior user experience
I really like your term micro-engagement. For a lot of business apps, "time spent" is a terrible measure of value. La Quinta hotel chain figured out it should let customers reserve a hotel room with just their phone number, rather than a credit card, on its mobile app because it's so much quicker and easier to enter a phone number. For transactional apps, the less time spent is often the better. 
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
4/4/2014 | 8:20:43 PM
More control passes to the end user
Another good post by Tom. The mobile app may be "a thin shell of device specific functionality," as David says below, but at the same it's a stronger application control point than the Web application's browser interface. Many more specific ways to exert control can be handed off to the mobile user by the application. I'd say compared to client/server, control in the mobile cloud has passed to the end user instead of still being resident on the back end server. When that occurs, the Web is indeed a form of middleware, expediting the exchange.
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Among 688 respondents, 46% have deployed mobile apps, with an additional 24% planning to in the next year. Soon all apps will look like mobile apps and it's past time for those with no plans to get cracking.
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