This article is the conclusion of a five-part series on the mobile web vs app debate. In it, I look at which of the two technologies will prevail over the long-term.
The biggest question in the mobile web vs app debate is who will win?
Based on the items that I have discussed throughout this series, the winner will be the mobile web. The power of flexibility, the ability to design once for multiple handsets, the open nature of the web, the control over content, and the reduced costs of maintenance and promotion will lead developers to push more and more functionality to the mobile web. For users, the ability to freely move between handsets and carriers, as well as to have a seamless experience between their desktop and mobile device, will also lead users to favor the mobile web over apps.
However, the road to mobile web victory will not occur without a few hiccups. Clearly, there are issues with the mobile internet today that have enabled mobile apps to take the early lead in this contest. A recent study on mobile web usability highlighted the issues with the current state of the mobile internet. It was no surprise that small screens, awkward input, download delays, and poorly designed sites are the primary issues. All of these things, though, are being addressed. Download delays are being addressed by improvements in the carriers’ networks. Awkward input is being addressed by new handsets with user interfaces that simplify navigation. Small screens and poorly designed sites are being addressed by companies optimizing their sites for mobile – either on their own or with the help of outside products and services. As these issues with the mobile internet fade, the mobile web will gain momentum and move ahead of apps as the primary means of mobile interaction.
I do not expect apps to go quietly though. As pointed out in an earlier article in the series, the manufacturers and carriers do not want the app gravy train to end. Apps provide an income source for these groups as well as reduce their burden of building new, faster networks or better, more usable handsets. They will fight the inevitable, putting more resources into marketing programs that sing the praises of apps and play down the mobile internet.
But history has taught us a valuable lesson, and all one has to do is look at the desktop PC market to see it. Web-based apps have clearly won against local apps on the desktop. Sure many companies fought the transition, but the lower costs of web-based applications, the ability to access your data wherever you need it, the security of data back-up on enterprise-class servers, and the flexibility to change hardware without impacting data and apps won out. The consumer chose the better option, and the companies that fought it were forced to follow. I don’t see any reasons why the mobile environment won’t play out the same way – the consumers will speak and the companies will need to follow.
So does this means that apps are dead? No, it does not. Apps will still have a role in the mobile environment. Just as on the desktop, there is certain functionality in the mobile environment that is best served through an app. For example, to do intensive gaming, where the capabilities and specifications of the hardware matter, an app makes more sense. Apps will fill a niche in the mobile environment going forward, and one that could be a potentially lucrative niche as gaming has proven on the PC. However, for the vast majority of interactions in the mobile environment, the mobile web will dominate.
Today there is a great debate between the mobile web and apps, but as the mobile web matures, the next couple of years will be the transition period when the mobile web overtakes apps as the dominant method of interation in the mobile environment.