This is part 1 of a 5-part series covering the issues in the Mobile web vs. app debate. In this article I discuss reasons why mobile apps are more popular than the mobile web.

In some ways, there isn’t much of a debate today on whether you should develop a mobile app or a mobile website. With Apple heavily promoting the iPhone App Store, and nearly every other manufacturer joining in with their own version, why is there even a debate? In fact, the iPhone App Store has over 50,000 apps and has recorded over 1.5 billion (yes, billion!) downloads. In the marketing and hype realm, apps have won.

However, I would submit the evolution of the internet and web-based computing as a case study as to why mobile apps will falter and mobile web-based apps will win in the long run. In the old PC environment, applications had to be installed and run locally on your machine. Today, the PC has become nothing more than a thin client that is used to run apps that are on the internet. The mobile phone is an even thinner client that your PC, so why are we installing apps on our mobile devices? Apps are winning the battle today for two simple reasons:

Apps solve temporary problems with the mobile internet

In the early days of the internet, connectivity was expensive, speeds were slow, and browsers were primarily text-based. People talked about internet-based apps and e-commerce, but they were dreams at best given the technological problems. As the problems with the early internet faded, applications on the web became a reality. Web-based apps started slowly with applications such as e-mail but have migrated to all kinds of apps today including office productivity suites, CRM tools, multimedia editing programs, games and more.

Today’s mobile internet suffers from the same problems as the early internet, but these problems are rapidly being addressed. The cost of connecting to the mobile internet is still high, but it gets cheaper every year as carriers compete for customers. Carriers are working on releasing new 4G networks that will offer further improvements in speed. Many companies are working on improved browsing technology for the mobile environment that will allow more functionality and multimedia on mobile websites. Within the next 2-3 years, the problems that apps are solving with the mobile internet will pass allowing for improved access and increased functionality from mobile web-based applications.

Manufacturers use apps to differentiate their hardware

When the PC first hit the market, there were many players and many operating systems. IBM, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack and others had personal computer offerings. These manufacturers differentiated their machines based on the applications that were available to run on them. The machines that had the best applications resulted in the best sales. When IBM, Microsoft and Intel worked together to create an open system for developers to create applications, their model created the dominant force in the PC market.

With the emergence of the internet, the apps that your PC runs are no longer that important, so long as you can connect to the internet. What has become important when buying a PC are things like cost, ease of use, color, battery life, portability, and reliability. As a case in point, Apple has improved their PC market share by focusing on these issues, not by making more apps for the computer.

In today’s mobile market, handset manufacturers are following the old application model to grab market share and spending way too much time and effort on apps. As issues with the mobile internet disappear, the handset features will dominate, just as they do in the PC market. Companies that are listening to consumer needs and innovating in these areas over the long-term will win.

 

There are a lot of lessons from the PC market and the emergence of the internet that can be applied to the mobile market. Both manufacturers and consumers need to be careful not to get fooled by today’s marketing hype surrounding apps and recognize that just as web-based apps now dominate the PC environment, mobile web-based apps are the way of the future.

Tomorrow, part two of the mobile web vs app series looks at the true costs of developing applications for the mobile environment.