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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

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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.

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

  2. Ouriel Ohayon Saturday, June 19, 2010

    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.

    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.

      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.

      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.

  3. Syed Mazhar Ali Saturday, June 19, 2010

    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.

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

    1. Carolyn Pritchard Scot Saturday, June 19, 2010

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

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

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

  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,

  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!

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

  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

    1. Kevin Kelleher Rob Saturday, June 19, 2010

      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.

  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.

  10. theothermacguffin Saturday, June 19, 2010

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

  11. Jane Sheridan Sunday, June 20, 2010

    Apps are here to stay for the forseeable future… embraced by all the major platforms, not just apple. Too bad for the dumb webco.

  12. Kevin, I have to agree with you. There are several applications that I have replaced with webb bookmarks- banking apps, facebook, wikipedia, Nerflix, just to name a few. Most sites are moving to touch optimised websites. Plus, I want to save memory my phone for applications that are actually unique function based programs, like diaries and barcode scanners, not to mention movies and music.

  13. What about the upcoming iOS4 “folder” functionality? This should help with App creep by making them easier to organize.

  14. Ernest Nova Monday, June 21, 2010

    What you need is voice activation for apps..

    People talk using phones so using voice to fire up an application is not unnatural on a smart phone ( as it might appear to be on say a desktop PC )

    A browser book mark or application icon on device home screen is still too many steps to get to use any application.

    p.s

    BlackBerry has an interesting approach where you can navigate from one app into another: Email, phone, calendar, tasks on one hand and 3rd party apps that integrate these functionality on the other without having to lose your place in the originating application.

  15. James Pearce Monday, June 21, 2010

    I’m already making progress at rewriting one famous native iPad app into a pixel-perfect web equivalent: http://whitherapps.com

    Indistinguishable is my goal, and I feel confident.

  16. links for 2010-06-21 « Michael Nolan Monday, June 21, 2010

    [...] App Creep and the Case for the Mobile Browser Not sure this article knows what point it's trying to make but there's a few interesting stats and points raised alongside a lot of obvious stuff. (tags: mobile browser gigaom) [...]

  17. Saurabh Kaushik Monday, June 21, 2010

    I always believed that App bubble on Mobile will burst in similar manner as it did on PC.

    Just check my Nexus One (Android 2.1) browser score for HTML5 readiness: Score was 151.

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  20. Hmm…thought we were moving to this magical “cloud” where instead of having to download or install apps, we would just access the stuff online.

    Not so in the cell phone world, where the opposite is true.

  21. I have three browsers on my Nokia N900. The native browser (which I use most often) scored 149, Firefox scored 139, and Midori scored a mere 86.

    While I use desktop widgets such as Facebook and Foreca Weather for quick reference, I’m quite partial to using native websites – even preferring the full version of Gmail.com over the basic or even more limited mobile version, or the email app. Perhaps that’s why I don’t consider the relative scarcity of apps relative to iOS or Android as much of a downside – the web is the app in my case, and the browser handles every site I’ve visited exceptionally well.

    No idea if I’m ahead of the curve or behind it. :-D

  22. What We’re Reading: App Creep – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com Thursday, June 24, 2010

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  23. App creep is a problem that won’t go away easily, esp. on the iPhone. The App Store is a profitable enough marketplace for Apple that it will prioritize innovation and problem-solving to maintain the better-than-Web experience. iOS4’s app folders is an example. The bigger issue is latency – apps will run better and faster than Web apps for years. Think of how long it took before multiplayer online gaming could match local gaming.

  24. iPhone 4 running on WiFi scored 185.

  25. Which exactly why Apple doesnt want me crashing the app party.

  26. It strikes me as a bit bizarre that more people don’t revolt against the whole mobile app movement. It’s exactly the wrong direction and hugely counterproductive. Web browser apps that work across all OSs including mobile ones would be vastly better: write once run anywhere for the developers, and none of the constant maintenance updates. Many of these apps update every week or more often. Imagine downloading updates for over a hundred apps on a weekly basis. Insane. No wonder batteries die and networks are overloaded.

    The reason that mobile web apps have seemed inferior to local apps is that mobile browser have been atrocious pale imitations of their desktop equvalents.

  27. “at which point I planned to delete many of them. “

    HA. You are obviously the typical Apple fan that has cash burning a hole in your pocket. Apple is the Disney (high $$$ entry costs) of tech. And guess what, (SJ is COB of Dis), it is.

  28. People are viewing phone Apps the same way they came to view desktop apps — and if you look at them this way, sure, there’s bloat. Who would have 150 desktop apps, many of which are never used? But that’s the wrong perspective. Look at apps like for example some random pinball machine you play once or twice in a bar. You might spend $3 for a half hour doing that, and no one would find that strange. But you spend 99 cents on a game that you play a few times on your phone and suddenly everyone is talking about clutter and app ADD, etc. It doesn’t matter how many times you use one of these things, they are very often simply ephemeral entertainment, and a bargain at that.

  29. What you are really talking about with app creep is not the distribution or delivery mechanism (app vs browser), but rather the end-user experience. You can think of the mobile device itself (or the OS) AS essentially a browser for apps. Putting apps within another browser inside this (hardware/software) browser may reduce the number of icons in your app list, but it just shunts them to a ‘Favorites’ list inside the browser. How does this solve the problem of app creep? Who doesn’t have a Favorites/Bookmarks folder that suffers from the same organisational and search problems as any complex system?

    What mobile devices need is essentially what is in the Windows Start Menu: an auto-ranking of most used apps (plus any you ‘pin’) to show up on the front page, plus a launcher/multitasker that loads all your ‘feed’ apps (blogs, headlines, Twitter, email, Pandora) in the background natively, combined with some kind of smart notification mechanisms.

    I rather think that app + browser is an effective combination: apps are more structured/efficient, the browser is more freeform/versatile. You can get both exactly what you need directly without navigating to it on oen hand, but preserve the flexibility to find out unknown things through serendipity/linking/etc.

  30. use spotlight search on iphone to find apps

  31. The Week We Searched For- June 25, 2010 – Web Design Greece – WEBTEC Friday, June 25, 2010

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  32. While I can access my Yahoo account via browser, I find that it is easier to access my email from the built-in app on my iPhone. Even if I don’t have internet access, I can still read the emails previously downloaded. The UI is easier to use. There are no ads. This may not be a great example because the email app is built-in, but my point is that if a mobile web version of a service was as good or better than a native app, why bother with the app version?

    So, if the advent of newer technology such as HTML5 makes the web app function more like a native one, I, personally, expect that I wont have as many native apps installed, at least, in instances where internet access is a key component.

  33. I will use web apps in a pinch, but I always prefer a native app hooked into the cloud if its available.   The lag, the lack of polish, the lack of platform specific standards always make web apps seem jerry rigged… like they are designed for the lowest common denominator.    They work, but I have yet to find one that’s a truly great experience when compared to what you can get from a native app tightly integrated into a platform. 

    Pandora is a perfect example.  The iPhone and iPad Pandora apps are a delight to use.    The web app (and that horrible Adobe Air monstrosity they mistakenly think I would me to pay a premium to access) are horrible by comparison.  I go out of my way not to use them whenever possible.   
     
    I’ve heard this prediction before that web apps (or cross platform runtimes) are going to save the day.  If only it had X technology it would be so much better.  But with each new technological revision I’ve been underwhelmed.  I understand that to programmers this kind of thing is Holy Grail. It might make a your job easier but the end user experience always seems to suffer as a result of these kinds of shortcuts.

  34. None of this will apply until we have some sort of in-browser (web app) marketplace. Everyday (read: non-techie) users aren’t going to flock to web apps until there’s a centralized, sortable, ratings-based location for them.

  35. Escaping Flatland with iOS 4 « Thomas Park Monday, June 28, 2010

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