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Summary:

People will have you believe that there is some universal truth in this debate — that there is one right way. Well, there isn’t.

The mobile web versus mobile native “grudge match” rages on, with almost 300 comments to Super VC Fred Wilson’s post on whether now is the time to invest in mobile web apps (and services) over mobile native ones.

But the arguments presented in favor of the mobile web over mobile native represent a false dichotomy. Simply put, there is no universal truth in the mobile web vs. mobile native debate, and no “one right way,” despite what the pontificators would have you believe.

The argument in favor of mobile web goes like this: The web is open, ubiquitous, requires no special software, is globally searchable and algorithmically discoverable. As such, it is agile, extensible and readily manageable. Plus, there are lots of proven models for development, discovery, distribution and monetization. And, of course, mobile web development offers a higher degree of symmetry to PC browser-based web development than mobile native app development does.

The argument is favor of mobile native goes like this: There are over 400 million iOS devices and over 500 million Android devices, representing almost 1 billion devices worldwide. In the case of iOS, Apple has built a well-managed development, distribution and monetization platform that has yielded tremendous innovation and user engagement in areas ranging from photography to gaming, social networking, entertainment, education, music and other rich media.

On some level, the argument comes down to “good enough” and “universal” vs. the “richest possible experience” on the device type that is subsuming the PC.

Is Mobile ‘Native’ a Temporary Thing?

Mobile web devotees make three arguments against the long-term viability of mobile native apps. One, they argue that it’s just a matter of time before HTML 5 gets “good enough” to obviate the need for distinct mobile native platforms.

Two, they assert that because mobile native apps are tied to app stores, this overly restricts what developers can do, thereby throttling innovation.

Three, they argue that app store economics don’t make sense. Native apps cost more to develop than web apps. Discovery within the app store is hard and giving up a 30% cut to Apple (in the case of iOS) is expensive.

Let’s tackle these one by one. First, HTML 5. Let me note that I have been in the tech business since 1994, essentially the dawn of the web, and the ethos even then was that the web browser would become as functionally rich as a native PC application. I’m still waiting.

To be clear, the browser is functional and essential, but it’s a crap piece of software. In other words, it could easily be another decade, and we’ll still be having this same conversation.

Two, if the app store model is throttling innovation, then I want more throttling because what I see in terms of the range of app types, and their design and implementation is a rain forest of diversity. Meanwhile, I am still waiting for even one mobile web app that stops me in my tracks.

Three, however, is where the real meat lies. Mobile native apps are more expensive to develop, and while Apple can proudly report that it’s paying billions of dollars to iOS developers, the messier truth is that approximately half of those dollars are going to just 25 developers.

That type of split between the mass of makers and the relative few takers is not sustainable in terms of cultivating a thriving, sustainable independent developer class, something that I blogged about previously (see ‘The iPhone, the Angry Bird and the Pink Elephant‘).

Nonetheless, it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that native app economics is an argument against mobile native, and in favor of mobile web.

Confusing Delivery with Dollars

Let me explain. The app and app store model delivers phenomenal development, distribution and monetization logistics. It’s push-button easy in the same way that Google made search push-button easy and Amazon made commerce push-button easy.

For all of the talk about the magical cloud, we forget just how magical it is that in a single click, hundreds of thousands of apps can find their way onto my device. It just works. Even better, there are inumerable ways that I can monetize that – be it via one-time purchase, subscription, in-app product extensions, advertising, and augmentation of a non-mobile business model. Moreover, there are many ways that I can let consumers try before they buy.

However, delivery and distribution are not the same as “discovery.” Unsurprisingly, in a sea of 700,000 apps, it’s not easy for developers to have their apps be discovered by users.

But you know what? That is less of a damnation of the app store model and more of an indication that the process of discovering native apps is not much better than the process of discovering web apps.

Put another way, it all comes down to the on-boarding process — from “try” to “engage” and “buy” to a well-codified usage lifecycle. Again, this is a similar variable in the web app universe, right? 

One can quibble about whether Apple’s 30% cut is fair, more so than whether a well-managed development, distribution and monetization platform targeting hundreds of millions of users is a good thing.

 The bigger dilemma is that, once upon a time, developers assumed that the app store was their customer acquisition strategy (i.e., all the marketing that they need to do).

Until proven otherwise by Apple, Google or other upstarts, developers should now know better — and that, of course, changes assumptions about go-to-market, marketing spend, etc.

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  1. Well, there are bigger issues, like the diversity of devices that you need to build to. You basically have two choices: build for the least common denominator, or build for the browser.

    The other point you missed, is the network effect. (‘i will send you a .ppt file’ so powerpoint software slowly becomes ubiquitous) how will this scale in a mobile native world?

    Your PC example is wrong. remember, the mobile world is about ‘always connected’ devices. the pc software trajectory would have been different if the devices were connected always.

    “until proven otherwise” – that is round trip fallacy –
    http://statspotting.com/2011/03/chris-dixons-seo-post-classic-round-trip-fallacy/

    1. So are you suggesting that there is no difference between the capabilities of the mobile browsers? Are you suggesting that tablets are always connected? The main point of comparison to PC web apps and PC native apps is that the idea that the web browser will become so functionally rich that it will obviate the need for native apps is as old as the web.

  2. Mobile apps = desktop apps. Just like we used to create in VB countless small mostly useless apps.
    App Stores = Yahoo Directory
    ???? = Google Search

    Viewing this as exclusive to mobile phones is short term thinking. We should be looking at how we make the web more integrated and seamless to everything without the use of big clunky old phones. Clothing, cars, furniture, electrical outlets, cooking, home appliances, events etc etc.

  3. As a dumb user I don’t care about tech.
    What I see is that we are going from:
    Private content (paid access), over commodity content (web, guessed intent), to personalized content in context (personal content pushed to context aware [mobile] )

    If you can build personal context aware apps in HTML5 fine, if not also fine. If you’re just an amplifier in a commodity market depending on commodity tech, my thought would be a lot of amplifiers put together just generate noise. Hence dumb users move to personal context for which HTML5 is not build(IMHO).

    There will be no winner takes all, but there will be a significant difference in usage over time.

  4. As an anecdote, I can see that 90% of the apps on my phone and tablet could just as easily be built as Web-based apps. There is zero reason they had to be native. In every native case, I have to go through an intermediary (Apple, Microsoft, Google) to get something that shouldn’t require a download or constant updating. Tell me how that’s better, in the world where we’re finally free from e-mail clients and shrink-wrapped software.

    1. >>There is zero reason they had to be native.

      Really. Hold your breaths, the next sentence is revelatory

      >>In every native case, I have to go through an intermediary (Apple, Microsoft, Google) to get something

      Ta daaaa!

  5. @Jeff, better is relative, and I guess it depends on what apps you use 90% of the time. A simple example is my twitter client, tweetbot. Do you **need** a twitter app to use twitter? Hardly. That stated, I find the experience of twitter materially better in terms of workflow in an app like tweetbot over browser based access. Do I need a native app to use Kindle? No, but that user experience is materially better, IMHO.

    And of course, these are the low media, low interactivity examples. Once you get into games, productivity, rich media and messaging, an app is a better experience.

    Given a choice between mythical freedom and a superior user experience, I will choose the latter on most days.

    Otherwise, no one would have cared about when Google Maps re-emerged on iOS since the Mobile Web version was, technically speaking, “good enough.”

  6. There is a huge difference between web browsing and app using. They are two different use cases. A web app requires a framework like a browser but it doesnt need all the features of a web browser other than say the retrieval and rendering and maybe, form saving.

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