Sorry HTML 5, mobile apps are used more than the web

App Store

Mobile applications are commanding more attention on smartphones than the web, highlighting the need for strong app stores on handset platforms. For the first time since Flurry, a mobile analytics firm, has been reporting engagement time of apps and web on smartphones, software is used on average for 81 minutes per day vs 74 minutes of web use. Just a year ago, mobile web use outnumbered time spent on apps with 64 minutes as compared to 43 minutes. Trends are ever subject to change, but this one indicates that we’ll be waiting longer for HTML 5 web apps to unify the world of mobile devices.

What are our mobile app minutes spent doing? Flurry, which monitors software on  iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and J2ME platforms, says we’re a growing community of gamers, with 47 percent of our app time spent playing. Social networking followed up with 32 percent, while news, entertainment and other activities each accounted for single digits.

The entertainment figure of only 7 percent seems low to me given that mobile video, a time-intensive activity, is popular: Some data suggests that iPad users watch 2.5 times more video than traditional web users, for example. While YouTube has a solid mobile web interface, many platforms kick users into a native YouTube application. Last July, YouTube said it was serving 100 million videos per day through both its mobile software and website.

Regardless of that potential anomaly, the data underscores a few points I’ve made about mobile app ecosystems: If a platform doesn’t have a strong set of third-party apps available, consumer adoption of the platform becomes a greater challenge. To some degree, we’re now seeing that with Google Android Honeycomb tablets as well as RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. There are other issues facing each of these, but a lack of optimized apps isn’t helping any, especially with the move from web to apps on mobiles.

Flurry’s data also has me pondering the future of web apps; namely, will HTML5 become as strong of an “app” platform as some would hope? As Chetan Sharma noted last year, the beauty of the web as an application distribution point is the reduced fragmentation it brings:

[T]he 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.

Sharma’s thought made perfect sense to me back then, and while I’m still in general agreement with him, I’m beginning to wonder if the situation has changed. Instead of a mobile market with a number of platforms, we’re now witnessing the space become dominated by just two in Android and iOS. The third spot is up for grabs, although Windows Phone 7 has recently gained perceived momentum. BlackBerry / QNX and webOS are in transition, while Symbian is on the way out.

All the smartphone platforms are using WebKit browsers, so there’s still opportunity for web apps to unified across a large number of devices, but with such dominant operating systems in play, there may be less need for the web browser as a “great unifier” in mobile than there was just a year or two ago. And as long as apps keep appearing, the trend indicates consumers will keep buying.

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