In the debate over apps versus the web on smartphones, apps are winning, says Gowalla CEO Josh Williams. There’s hope from companies like Opera and Google that the web will surge ahead as HTML 5 becomes more widespread, but Williams has his doubts.

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In the ongoing debate over apps versus the web on smartphones, apps are clearly winning. There’s hope from companies like Opera and Google that the web will surge ahead as HTML 5 becomes more widespread, and access to native phone hardware from the web become available to make web-based apps more powerful, but in a conversation the other night with Gowalla CEO Josh Williams, he expressed doubts.

Williams, whose location check-in app has 400,000 users, said that Austin, Texas-based Gowalla had built both an iPhone app and a “beautiful mobile site” for other smartphone platforms, but people overwhelmingly used the app, which disappointed him. “People love apps, but it drives a stake in the heart of the build-once-deploy-everywhere model, and makes the market really fragmented,” said Williams. It’s possible that consumers, now trained to hit up an app marketplace rather than a web site, may never go back, but it’s also an indication of the wholesale shift in how people use the Internet and the nature of the Internet.

Many people perceive the web as source for content rather than a source of services. An app puts the illusion of packaging around a web-delivered service so people feel like they are buying functionality, not merely visiting a site to perform a function or access content. This subtle perception not only explains why apps are popular, but it might also be a clue as to why folks can charge for apps while still unable to monetize their web-based services.

But Williams can’t spend much time regretting the fragmented mobile market. As the CEO of a check-in service with a fifth of the users that Foursquare has, Williams needs to take Gowalla in a new direction or figure out how to jump ahead of its peers in the evolving social location market. Unfortunately, Williams was intentionally vague about his plans for upcoming Gowalla features that should launch in a month or so, and unintentionally vague on the future of location in social networks.

Williams dropped the world “places” (it’s the It word if you’re a location startup, kind of like “pivot” is if you’re an angel-backed startup in Silicon Valley or NYC) into the conversation several times, when asked about Gowalla’s next steps. He also touted the increase in Gowalla users who have visted the web site to share memories, pictures or commentary about places where they’ve checked in; now 45 percent of users visit the site as a follow-up, as opposed to 20 percent six weeks ago. So it’s likely Gowalla will launch some kind of places product. However, Williams couldn’t articulate why someone would go to Gowalla for this if Facebook offered it or Yelp broadened its reach.

He explained that Gowalla’s databases of places is an advantage because it was created by its users and isn’t licensed from another player. Apple and Google apparently think that’s important enough to start gather their own place data, but Williams couldn’t clearly state the value Gowalla hopes to extract from that. Maybe when Gowalla announces new features everything will become clear.

Related GigaOM Pro research (sub req’d): Location the Epicenter of Mobile Innovation

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  1. If I had to pick one it would be web over app for mobile.

  2. Shane Burgess Friday, August 13, 2010

    I wrote an app for android called f that simply takes facebook’s mobile site and encloses it in an app. Perhaps the answer is mobile site/app hybrids. Mobile sites are much easier to write. Some apps will need more access to the hardware and will ultimately have to be apps but many wont.

  3. Shane Burgess Friday, August 13, 2010

    I wrote an app called “f” for android that takes the facebook touch mobile web site and embeds it into an app. Now you have an icon and it looks like an app when you launch it. So I am thinking that I will go the hybrid route and write mobile web sites, where internet access is needed anyway, and embed them into apps because web apps are alot easier to write. There are instances where an app would need more access to the phone’s hardware, in which case you would need to write a native app. There will be also cases where the app doesn’t need to access the internet in which case the user would not expect to need internet access to use said app.

  4. The Irony of Mobile Users Preferring Apps Over Web « SmoothSpan Blog Friday, August 13, 2010

    [...] Posted by smoothspan on August 13, 2010 Apparently, mobile users prefer apps over the web.  At least that’s Gowalla CEO Josh Williams’ view: [...]

  5. Ralph Haygood Friday, August 13, 2010

    Has Gowalla made any effort to get people with iPhones and Android phones to use its mobile web app? I use Gowalla’s Android app on my Nexus One, because I got the impression that’s what Gowalla wanted people with Android phones to do. Is that impression wrong?

    More generally, I don’t buy the notion that web apps are second-class citizens on phones. I spend at least as much time using web apps as native apps on my phone. Google Reader is probably the single most-used app on my phone, and it’s a web app.

    I’d probably use web apps even more if I had an iPhone, because the way Apple runs their app store means it often takes many weeks for new features and bug fixes in native apps to become available to users.

  6. build once, deploy everywhere = all javascript

  7. SearchCap: The Day In Search, August 13, 2010 Friday, August 13, 2010

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  8. It’s not even close – native apps are much better (from an iOS user point of view) than web apps. Sure there are a handful of web apps that can compare to native apps but overall it’s no comparison.

    There are so many awesome Apps for iOS devices. Keep ‘em coming.

  9. Serendipitous timing – our dev team just posted a brief essay on the surprises & frustrations of developing a mobile web app. Apple is, ironically, great. Android and BBerry, not so much: http://blog.grouptabs.com/2010/08/13/thoughts-on-native-and-non-native-mobile-apps-apple-doesn%e2%80%99t-deserve-the-crap-they-get/

  10. Interesting perspective from someone at the front lines.

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