Mobile App vs. Mobile Web; Will the Web win again?

February 23rd, 2011 by Jeremy Chone

It has been interesting to see how the mobile market unilaterally went the “local-application” way, while the PC market had moved away from it a decade ago. Skype was probably the last new desktop application to be adopted by the masses.

Now the question is: we will see the same dynamic on the mobile space as well?

To determine whether the Web will win the mobile market as it did the PC market, we need to understand why the “local-application” model has been so successful for mobile.

I believe there are two main reasons for this success:

1) New economy

Apple has been extremely skilled at creating a new market around mobile applications, making all of the talented developers want to produce great applications for a fair financial return. This in turn taught users that this new location (i.e., App Store) was the place to get good products, and the snowball started. This is a kind of revolution in itself for the software industry, since for the last decade the only way for talented developers in the software industry to make a living was either by working for an established software company, such as Microsoft, Adobe, or Symantec, or by over-investing in a creative but uncertain free-for-all Web application and hoping that it will become the next twitter or at least a $100M sellout to a Google.

In other words, before the mobile market, the software industry did not have a SMB market and the only players were established software companies or venture-backed startups. The App Store changed all that; good developers could make a great living by building great products.

2) Immediacy

Users are growing increasingly impatient about technology as they become more savvy. The “local-application” fulfills this need for immediacy, whereas the Web is not fully there yet. Technically, HTML5, which is very well supported in modern mobile devices, does support many offline capabilities, but not 100% of them. It is one thing to allow an application to store data and resources locally, but it is quite another to make a Web application “local-like.” The Google Chrome Web Store (for PC and ChromeOS) is the closest implementation for this model; however, ironically, this capability is not available on mobile devices (webOS was a nice experiment in this area).

Consequently, in a mobile Web environment, developers are left to educate users about home-screen bookmarking and trying nifty tricks to make mobile browsers start as fast as a native application launch.

So, how can the Web take over mobile?

In order for the Web to take over mobile, it will have to be better than its counterpart on the above two fronts.

The second point is mostly technical, and even if it has some user-education aspect to it, we can imagine that, with all of the smart people at Google, Mozilla, and W3C, a solution will emerge.

As for the first point, I do not think the Web will evolve into a paid-app model anytime soon. We, the software industry, have for too long taught the user that the best Web applications are free (e.g., YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, GDocs, and Quora). Consequently, the only way that the Web can make money for small developer shops (the SMB market) is by optimizing the ad market for it (probably local ads) and developing the in-app payment model (which seems to be very promising). But still, the industry need a unified store for this, and while Google Chrome Web Store is a good start, I think more is needed to truly compete with the Mobile application ecosystem. For example, The ratio users/credit-cards is critical to the success of such a store as the single-touch buy experience has become a expected feature. Interestingly, Apple recent aggressive subscription pricing model might push some other big players (e.g. Amazon) to seriously consider investing in some Web Store alternatives.

In short, I think it is possible for the Web to win back mobile, but there is a tough road ahead. The good news is that it is relatively easy to package an HTML5 application into a local-application, thereby giving the user what he or she wants and giving the developers a way to reuse their investment across multiple distribution channels (Web and Native).

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One Response to “Mobile App vs. Mobile Web; Will the Web win again?”

  1. Quora Says:

    Will HTML5 see the death of mobile apps and propel the mobile web?…

    Depends if you talk about HTML5 as the “Web”, or HTML5 as the technology that can be used for Mobile Web or do packaged application (using embeded WebView). 

    For the former, I think the Web needs an economic ecosystem to rival with Native (i.e. a St…

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