In the App Economy, Does the Mobile Browser Matter?

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 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 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 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?

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d)

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This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

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