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In the App Economy, Does the Mobile Browser Matter?

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Mobile broadband consumption shows no signs of slowing, but the way people access the mobile web could be changing. Gartner has released 10 Mobile Technologies to Watch in 2010, and while I don’t disagree with any on the list, two are jumping out at me: app stores and the mobile web itself. According to the report:

  • By 2011, over 85 percent of handsets shipped globally will include some form of browser
  • App stores will be the primary (and, in some cases, the only) way to distribute applications to smartphones and other mobile devices

The two points make me wonder if and when mobile software applications will render the mobile browser less relevant. While there isn’t yet an application to complement every mobile web site, I recently realized that nearly all of the software on my smartphone uses the mobile web. As a result, I’m tapping the Internet on my handheld far less often with the browser.

Apps such as Seesmic, FiOS Mobile (s vz) and Remember the Milk allow me to connect with people, devices or data over the web. And they do so in a fashion that’s generally more pleasing to use than a mobile site. I could read or send tweets through the actual Twitter site, but I use an app for visual appeal and easier access to functionality, which means the software has transitioned my mobile web usage away from the browser. The same scenario applies to Remember the Milk, which I use to manage my tasks. There’s a mobile-friendly site available, but the RTM app is far more responsive and offers me a better user experience.

Essentially, these apps are bite-sized, functional chunks of the mobile web. The small bits of software are designed specifically for mobile use — often targeted for particular platforms — which brings a level of navigation and enjoyment not found in a browser. Mature mobile browsers like those based on WebKit are great, but I have yet to find a mobile web experience exceeding that of a mobile application.

To be sure, one person’s experience doesn’t make a trend; but I’m not the only one downloading or using mobile apps. Apple’s iTunes (s aapl) store crossed the 3 billion downloads-mark this past January — I have to wonder how many of those apps offer standalone functionality vs. those that connect to the mobile web. In the meantime, Android (s goog) is quickly gaining market share — perhaps as a result of sharing advertising revenue with handset makers — which is spawning a surge in Android software, as graphed by the AndroLib site. Based on the trend, the Android Police expect there to be some 100,000 Android apps available by around September of this year.

Of course, if there are more apps hitting the web on different handset platforms, that could create issues. In his report “Sizing Up the Global App Economy” Chetan Sharma notes the fragmentation issues that platform-specific apps can cause:

On the other hand, the fragmentation issue in mobile only gets worse with each year with new devices, different implementations and operating systems, the cost of rolling out an app across multiple devices around the world can increase exponentially. As such, the browser provides the prospect of being the great unifier so you can truly design once and run everywhere (where the browser is available). For the simple apps that are less interactive and require less multimedia capability, like the popular social networking and news/weather apps, browser provides the perfect avenue to maximize impact with least amount of development.

That’s a valid point and one that I experienced firsthand as I moved from the iPhone to an Android device for my primary handset earlier this year. Consumers must wait for an application to appear on their handset platform and until then, they’re reliant upon the browser as a workaround — often with less functionality such as geo-location or camera integration.

More or better functionality in mobile clients leads to more usage and engagement, which creates other problems. For example, mobile applications can further increase bandwidth demand. We’ve already seen this result in a problem — and a solution of sorts — with carriers asking Facebook to adjust their web platform in hopes of reducing bandwidth needs. As a result, Facebook began limiting the resolution of mobile photos on its web site. As mobile apps continue to rise in terms of both quantity and appeal, we could see the same adjustments in our mobile software.

Perhaps I’m in the minority here when it comes to mobile web usage in the apps and the browser. I certainly still use the browser on my phone — there’s isn’t app for everything just yet. But I’m using it less often as I find apps with functionality and the ties to the web that I need. Is your mobile web usage trending the same or am I simply an app-aholic?

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15 Responses to “In the App Economy, Does the Mobile Browser Matter?”

  1. On a mobile device, apps will always be first-class citizens. Even though the browser (the App) won’t be a mainstream app like it is on a PC, the standardized technologies of a browser (HTML5) will probably be consumed by an App in the form of a library.

    The roles will be flipped. The browser will run inside the App, and not the other way round.

    Jotted down some thoughts inspired by this post here:

  2. not really

    I started doing a lot of mobile application development a while ago, but came to the realization that outside niche areas mobile development really has no future and turned my focus back to web applications. The reasons are economics and market barriers.

    First with respect to barriers. It’s common sense that if you want people to use or purchase your product or service, you present a minimum number of obstacles to the user. What happened to desktop applications when they started to compete with web applications that required no installation, no potential bugs to disrupt the OS and are easy to trial. Desktop applications died.

    The same principle applies from the developer side as well, the easier it is to develop and deploy applications the more applications will be created. Device vendors, especially in Apples case, require developers to learn their proprietary systems and develop within their strict guidelines, require approval and sometimes surrender their work to the vendor. Compare that to web development where developers can leverage their existing skills and are not subject to the whims of draconian vendors.

    Currently you can create a better experience by developing natively for the device, but that will inevitably change. Javascript performance improvements, local storage, SVG and hooks to device information such as orientation will dramatically change the usability and utility of web applications for devices. When it does, you can expect mobile application to die off in the same way as desktop applications.

    There are also the other economic considerations. When you develop a web application, you can be developing for a range of form factors, desktop browsers, mobile browsers and so on. This way you are maximizing your market and minimizing your costs. There is simply no way you can ignore the utility of web applications outside niche areas. As it is a practical necessity to create a web application why duplicate the effort with a mobile device?

  3. The time I spend in apps, including the time I spend in browser alternatives such as NetNewsWire (RSS reader) and Instapaper vastly exceeds the time I spend in Safari on the iPhone. And the utility of specialized travel, weather, exercise, music, social and other apps is much greater for me than trying to use the browser for that information.

    But here’s something else I’ve noticed: be able to call on Apps for what I need has also greatly diminished my use of Google searches. When working on a laptop or a desktop, I typically do several (and sometimes more than several) Google searches a day. On the iPhone, it is rarely more than a couple a month.

  4. Great question, Kevin. The strong and accelerating customer pull for native experiences is one factor; the other biggie is developer push (i.e., how many quality developers are motivated to create great mobile software experiences, and for which platforms). Apple got a strong start here because iTunes gave them a huge leg up in distribution and monetization. But iTunes has failed to scale as a discovery engine, and Apple has repeatedly demonstrated their ambivalence toward the developer community.

    The net beneficiary – at least so far – has been Android and not web apps/HTML5. This is largely in spite of rather than because of Google’s efforts to support developers: Google Checkout isn’t exactly the household name that iTunes is, Google’s not stepping up to big print or TV buys to showcase the best apps, and most bizarre of all given it’s Google we’re talking about, there’s no web store (which is why we just built one – ). The big drivers of developer adoption here are carrier and handset maker commitment – the installed base of Android handsets is expected to be in the tens of millions by YE2010 – and the relative dearth of competition in Android Market, at least as compared to the App Store.

    But for both Apple and Google, the persistent advantage of the native experience over the web (especially from the developer perspective) is discoverability. From a discovery perspective a mobile web app is competing with every website on the planet for attention – literally millions of choices – while at worst (on iPhone) a native app is still just vying for attention among a few hundred thousand. When you’re trying to get eyes on – and make money – from your work, native is and will continue to be the obvious choice.

    We actually have some market data to support this, which I’m now motivated to try to package up for broader consumption. Because AppStoreHQ offers a discovery experience for iPhone, Android and Mobile web apps, we have a good sense for which catalog is attracting the most consumer and developer attention. Based on our interactions with the respective communities, we know that native iPhone continues to have the most engaged customer and developer population, but Android is catching up surprisingly quickly. In contrast, the mobile web community is passionate but small, and the customer pull for mobile web vs. native is even smaller.

  5. At least on the iPhone, geo-location and accessing the camera are already available through Mobile Safari. I’m actually an “apps fan” myself but many of today’s popular “table-based” apps (such as Foursquare or Twitter) could live in the browser just fine.

    Ironically, the people who would benefit most from building in the browser (i.e., the developers) prefer to create something shinier by going native. Maybe they won’t choose that path if there are four or more major platforms they have to support but until that happens, it’s telling that when the browser route is possible, developers pass on it.

  6. Is function becoming more important than structure?

    The browser, as we know it, isn’t particularly essential, but what it represents -a portal- matters a great deal. I think OSs, as we know them, are in precisely the same boat.

    Apps seem to be a really critical force in the evolution from mobile smartphones to truly superphones, but some sort of portal needs to unify the experience (or at least make it intelligible).

    As the online/offline dichotomy comes to an end, that portal to access information is going to be an extremely powerful, essential, personal, and profitable thing.

  7. You are spot on. Smartphones are the first computing devices that offer many ways to connect to the web – making the browser just one app to do so. Expect the quality/convenience benefit to only increases the app model cascades down into the less tech segments of the market.