Deathmatch: The mobile Web vs. mobile apps

Does the future belong to the mobile Web or mobile apps? Both stink today -- and both are going to get much better in the future.

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Credit: Thinkstock

A great way for technology pundits to attract attention is to predict the death of a popular technology. Over the past couple of years there have been a slew of columns and blog posts prophesying the demise of the mobile Web at the hands of mobile apps (one pundit sees apps dominating users' attention, another predicts apps will kill off the entire Web)  -- or the demise of mobile apps at the hands of the mobile Web (one company argues that app development rarely pays off, while this journalist complains that there are too many apps and they can't be searched).

The boring truth is that neither solution is going away soon. But let’s not totally dismiss the pundits of doom and gloom. They serve a useful purpose by highlighting the fact that both the mobile Web and mobile apps have limitations and flaws that users would never tolerate in other contexts.

The early days of cellular telephone service is a great analogy. If you are old enough to remember what cell phone service was like in the mid-1980s, you know exactly what I mean. Coverage was spotty. Noise and static were ubiquitous. Calls were more likely to be rudely dropped by the network than ended by the callers politely saying “Bye.” Yet people were eager to pay high prices to make mobile phone calls that were terribly unreliable and scratchy compared to landline phone calls.

Likewise, users crave mobile access to the Web and mobile apps despite a multitude of problems. Web pages can take a long time to load on mobile devices (particularly indoors, during peak hours, and where there isn’t 4G service) and often don’t display well on small screens. Apps may not work properly (or at all!) on specific phone models or operating system versions. And some apps continue to run in the background -- collecting and forwarding data -- even after they have been closed by the user. Yet there are signs that people rely more on the mobile Web than the desktop Web (Google reports it is seeing more mobile searches than desktop searches), and there are more than three million apps in the iOS, Android, Amazon, Windows, and BlackBerry app stores (see page 42 of the very informative FCC report on mobile competition).

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons for both mobile apps and the mobile Web.

The case for and against mobile apps

There continues to be a compelling case for mobile apps. Apps are fast, easy to use, and provide at least partial functionality even when there is no network connection. A quality app is a great way to keep a brand in front of users -- most users only download and install a limited number of apps. According to a survey conducted in Canada, on average smartphone users spend 86% of their time using apps. And an app from a trusted provider offers better security than a Web browser.

Apps can leverage other phone capabilities and cloud computing. For instance, an app can track the user’s location and record the user’s key clicks. Apps can upload data to the cloud for analysis and provide links to related Web sites. Vendors can distribute processing between their servers in the cloud and smartphones running their mobile app for greater computing power and efficiency.

There is a downside to mobile apps, however. Many apps don’t work properly on all phones. (My company did a study of the top restaurant chains’ apps in 2014 and found a disturbing number of complaints about apps that don’t open, crash frequently, or have features that don’t work properly.) Popular apps require ongoing updating and testing. The opportunities for small app developers are rapidly vanishing. Only a small percentage of apps are profitable.

The case for and against the mobile Web

The mobile Web has significant advantages. It gives small companies a chance to be seen. There are now “responsive” Web sites that automatically adjust to the device’s display capabilities. Mobile Web sites are searchable and can be accessed just by clicking on a link. Mobile Web sites are easier to develop and update, and separate versions aren’t required for different devices. Some argue that HTML5 eliminates the performance gap between the mobile Web and standalone apps by enabling browser-based apps. And mobile Web sites can be updated without consuming any of the user’s data allotment.

The mobile Web also has its downside. Web sites can’t track user behavior in as many ways and with as much precision as mobile apps. Web sites can’t be as tightly integrated with the user’s device, so they can’t leverage the phone’s other capabilities as easily. And most merchants would rather have an app icon on the user’s screen than a bookmark in the user’s mobile browser.

In the end, you won’t be able to tell them apart

We are being presented with a false choice. The mobile Web and mobile apps are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two solutions often work together. For instance, Facebook’s mobile app helps users discover content on the mobile Web. As Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote, “We enter social apps for discovery and then access the mobile Web while still in-app. It is a mistake to conflate time spent on the mobile Web with time spent in a traditional browser.” Others point out that mobile Web browsers are themselves smartphone apps.

The real question isn’t which solution will vanquish the other, but how will both solutions evolve to address their shortcomings. Responsive Web pages, HTML5, and devices with larger, higher resolution screens will make the mobile Web more useful. “Write once, run anywhere” technology will make mobile apps more reliable. Successful mobile apps must do more than merely replicate a company’s Website. Likewise, successful mobile Websites must provide mobile visitors with continually updated content and links.

Neither the mobile Web nor mobile apps are going to die. They are going to converge.

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