Why the mobile web vs. apps debate is a false dichotomy

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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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