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Summary:

App stores are so successful that some are arguing that native apps are the way we will experience the web on mobile devices. As more and more companies offer services on the mobile web, I believe the mobile browser will play a bigger role.

“Boy, you have a lot of apps,” my wife said after looking at my iPhone the other night. I told her I was waiting till I reached 100, at which point I planned to delete many of them. But it turned out I was already at 137. My iPhone was suffering an acute case of app creep.

By app creep, I mean the collecting (and then forgetting) of software programs. It isn’t new. But on mobile phones, the less popular apps are more visible, even a nuisance –- you frequently flip past pages of them searching for the one you need. It’s less of a problem on laptops and desktops, in part, because of the centrality of the web browsers on those devices. On a smartphone, I use a browser well less than a quarter of the time. But sooner than later, that will change, because as more and more companies offer services on the mobile web, the mobile browser will play a bigger role. Thanks to the advent of HTML5, browsers and  apps will learn to live with each other.

In the meantime, while there may be 200,000 apps for the iPhone and 50,000 for Android phones, but iPhone users have on average just 37 apps installed and Android owners, 22, according to the latest figures from Nielsen. Of course, not all apps connect users to the web, but many of those that don’t contain content that can easily be found online.

Eventually, a spot on the home screens of smartphones will become like beachfront property in Monte Carlo –- highly coveted real estate. Most non-elite developers will find it easier to reach a mobile audience through the browser. But for now, the lion’s share of them are ignoring the browser in favor of native apps, which -– unless they’re a featured or best-selling app in an app store -– often languish in obscurity.

And yet, as Kevin Tofel pointed out a few months ago, mobile apps “are bite-sized, functional chunks of the mobile web” that work so well he has “yet to find a mobile web experience exceeding that of a mobile application.”

It’s helping that, increasingly, mobile browsers are growing more sophisticated. When Apple launched the iPhone, they were still relatively primitive –- merely desktop browsers writ small. But recently HTML5 has been changing that, allowing for some key features commonly found in native apps, such as geolocation APIs, offline storage and more.

Still, HTML5 won’t be fully ratified as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium until later this year at the earliest. And in the meantime, mobile browsers are incrementally rolling out HTML5 feature compatibility. Visiting html5test.com on a iPhone Safari browser rates it 125 out of 300, on an Android 2.2 (Froyo), 176 and Opera Mini, just 22 (although Opera plans to change this in coming months).

Meanwhile, some companies are starting to tailor web sites for mobile browsers. It took me 25 seconds to type Facebook’s URL into my iPhone’s Safari browser (21 when I used a bookmark). It took me 20 seconds to find the Facebook app and post the same update. I couldn’t post a photo through the browser, and I couldn’t update my profile information. But the basic functions of posting and reading updates are already similar to what the Facebook app provides.

Beyond technology, there is another barrier that mobile browsers will have to overcome: the perception that native apps are the entry point for the web on mobile phones. It’s a message that Apple has driven home relentlessly with its iPhone and iPad TV commercials. But as app creep afflicts those devices and as browser usability improves, consumers may warm up to their browsers more.

Developers have also gravitated to native apps, partly to follow consumer demand and partly because, as Kevin noted, the experience has so far been superior. But developing web apps for a mobile browser has strong advantages in the long term -– among them, avoiding both the need to write for and support multiple OS platforms and the sometimes onerous approval requirements of app stores.

So contrary to what some are predicting will be a stronger movement toward native apps and a marginalization of the browser in the age of the mobile web, I see something different: an eventual balancing out. Native apps will always be on mobile phones, but as a kind of premier gallery of a person’s most beloved ones. Sooner than later, most companies seeking our attention will do so through a browser.

Image courtesy of Flickr user linusil

By Kevin Kelleher

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  1. I agree that more and more tasks currently handled in apps will be easier handled in the browser as HTML5 is rolled out, but I don’t think that app creep will play much role in driving mobile web uptake.

    In the browser, you get bookmark creep, to borrow your term. Whether phone or browser app, developers will always need to distinguish their products so as not to be forgotten. I think an implication of app creep that is interesting, however, is that perhaps apps aren’t immune from high bounce rates.

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    1. I will concede that app creep is more visible than bookmark creep and this may drive development of better solutions for handling it.

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  2. Kevin, the problem web apps are going to have for a while is distribution and monetization, something app stores are solving elegantly. Even if from a feature point of view they get equivalent to their native ones, i anticipate that developers’ attention will get to where business aspects (Traction, money) is less likely to be a headache. And for now and years to come i believe app stores will still be dominant.

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    1. How is distribution a problem at all for web apps? “Facebook.com”. There. Web app has been distributed.

      The entire point of a web app is to be a fancy website. Websites are not products which need to be distributed.

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      1. by distribution , people mean marketing

        Basically the point was that it was eas(ier) to get noticed on the app store…. well kinda…

        If you had a new website, how do you let people know about it? Blogs cover only a few startups. The app store allows more people to know about your small nifty thing (atleast thats the theory)

        It doesnt help facebook. They are well known, But Angry Birds … Hell yeah …

        Eventually there will be so many apps that this model starts failing. But for now … there is the gold rush.

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      2. Apps bring money (potentially) for each download. A website, more often than not, doesn’t.

        The smart phone market is where the PC market was before the web was born. On PCs, apps of all shapes and sizes had their day. And then the web happened. It is an irony that the web is used to distribute “apps” – when in fact, the web is designed to do exactly the opposite – run the world without resorting to apps.

        And this is exactly the head-on collision that Google is faced with. ChromeOS vs Android.

        Some day the world (developers, consumers) will realize the futility of a fragmented app world. And let’s not stay in denial of that f word – fragmentation.

        200,000 apps (for the iToys alone) is not what the world needs. But wait till your TV, bluRay, game station, router, refrigerator, microwave and washing machine come with app stores.

        Something that the world doesn’t need will seldom last. Even if it is good.

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  3. You are right, Even on my Nokia phone which I used to read news and blogs, I dont have to open browser all the time. Currently I installed an app for all the facebook, twitter updates and reading different blogs and news including this blog. This makes our life easy. But sometimes, somewhere we think browser is needed. So the apps should be written on the top of browser. They would be accessed through browser and so on.

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  4. Just to point out, my froyo browser got a 176 on the test.

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    1. @Scot, that was a typo and has been fixed. thanks

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    2. my opera mobile 10 for winmo got a 57.

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  5. My Droid running 2.1 with Dolphin browser scored 141 points on the HTML5 test.

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  6. I disagree that there is such a thing as app creep. There’s a behavior, but not something that can be described across the entirety of mobile users.

    When media and analysts speak more about using devices as they are configured out of the box and less about extending the functionality with apps, then we will see things like HTML5 and native apps take their rightful place in the mobile conversation. This requires a bit more mobile living and discipline on the parts of us who review and are opinion leaders in this segment of computer technology,

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  7. Kevin, why can’t you just search for the app on the iPhone? I just type the first few letters and the app comes up in the results. Better than browsing through the 70 odd apps on my iPhone!

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    1. I do. But it’s really not much different from typing a URL into a browser.

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  8. I’m sure you believe what you wrote. I suspect in a few years you will see the error of your ways. If you are still blogging then, let us know how your prediction came out.
    Thanks,
    Rob

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    1. You may be right, Rob. It wouldn’t be the first time I erred. But I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the browser is dying and that native apps and app stores are the future, and I wanted to make a counter-argument.

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  9. prefers bookmarking mobile websites on Opera Mobile and Skyfire browsers rather than filling my phone’s memory with programs. As phones become more powerful, and networks get faster and coverage wider, mobile websites become more prevalent, like web services are in desktops and laptops today.

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  10. theothermacguffin Saturday, June 19, 2010

    Just did the HTML 5 test in Safari on iOS 4.0 and it scores a 185.

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