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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Mobile Apps Will Pass – History Will Repeat Itself

16 Apr 2012

written by Kyle James

Mobile Apps Will Pass - History Will Repeat Itself

Over the past few years the big sexy conversation at conferences has slowly morphed from social media to mobile. It is partially because social media is better understood now but it’s also because mobile is the shiny new toy that everyone is trying to figure out. We have seen incredible inroads that mobile traffic is making up a larger and larger portion of web traffic. Mobile traffic to websites has doubled across the year alone in 2011.With all these discussions it has me thinking more and more of the future of mobile apps.

With recent data suggesting that the average user has well over 50 apps installed on their smartphone it is a great time to be an app developer. I on the other hand can’t help but feel like we are in a case of history repeating itself.  We are also seeing that time spent on mobile apps is greater than time spent on the desktop or the mobile web. I am probably no different as I have right at 50 apps installed. I actually went through and counted and deleted a few that I never use in the process.

About a month ago I was at the OmniUpdate user conference on a panel talking about mobile and its adoption. Of course lots of questions about mobile came up and I went back to my original guns. It was almost four years ago when I wrote an article on why building smartphone app’s wasn’t the best approach and schools should think about building for the mobile web first. I still stand behind that statement and let me tell you why. It is all about the history.

History Repeats Itself

Think back to the beginning of this decade around the time of the .com stock bubble. Do you remember how you used your computer at that point? Like most people I would download an application off the internet and install it on my computer. At the time I most likely had well over 50 different applications installed. Back in those days we didn’t call them “apps” we used that really long name “applications” or just simply programs.

The point is what happened next? Well the .com bubble might have been a bust for investors but we started to fundamentally change the way that we used our computers. The browser became the supper “app” and began to replace everything that we did. We no longer needed weather bug to tell us the temperature or AOL instant messenger to chat with friends. Databases moved online and we could do much of the work that used to be through installed applications through a web browser.

Think about what is happening right now… IT IS THE SAME THING! With the introduction of HTML5 it is only a matter of time before the smart mobile web is good enough to easily and quickly do everything you need without installing a dozen apps to do each individual thing. Do you ever find yourself deleting an app and just relying on the browser to get the data you want? Let’s go back to weather or how about sports scores? Is it really that much better to install ESPN Sportscenter than it is to just have a bookmark to the mobile web version? Where do we draw the line and say, nope that it is we aren’t going to install any more apps. Does the app that you build make the cut?

If you go back past into last century we didn’t download even software. Instead we install it from CDs and Floppy Discs. If you have an Xbox 360 or one of the other modern gaming platforms you probably don’t always buy a game on physical medium anymore as you can now download them directly to your consoles hard drive. There is a large debate right now about this being the standard on the next generation of gaming consoles and cutting out the whole reselling gaming market. We see this exact same transition happening in that market!

Taking Two Steps Forward

The argument that I made four years ago still stands true today in my mind. Just because you can build a mobile application it doesn’t mean that you should. Many mobile applications are just browser shortcuts put into a pretty frame anyway. We know that mobile browsing is only getting better and although it looks like Flash will ultimately be a casualty of the transition that might not be a bad thing.

In closing I want to share a recent Pew research report on the Future of Apps and the Web. The summary not surprisingly agrees with a lot of what I’m saying here:

Futurist John Smart, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, looks beyond 2020 and sees apps as merely a passing phase in Internet evolution. “Apps are a great intermediate play, a way to scale up functionality of a primitive Web,” he said, “but over time they get outcompeted for all but the most complex platforms by simpler and more standardized alternatives. What will get complex will be the ‘artificial immune systems’ on local machines. What will get increasingly transparent and standardized will be the limited number of open Web platforms and protocols that all the leading desktop and mobile hardware and their immune systems will agree to use. The rest of the apps and their code will reside in the long tail of vertical and niche uses.”

The executive summary of the report provides a lot of great bullet points for the web and for apps and is absolutely worth a read.  They list out all the pros and cons of mobile apps that I’m not going to get into here.  I’m curious about what you think on this subject? Do you still think there is a case to be made for building mobile apps or focusing on your mobile web strategy.

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license

About the author

Kyle James

Kyle is the CEO & Co-Founder at nuCloud and formerly the webmaster at Wofford College. He also spent almost 4 years at HubSpot doing a range of jobs including inbound marketing consulting, sales, management, and product management.  Kyle is an active contributor in the social media spectrum. Although his background is technical, he claims to know a thing or two about marketing, but mostly that revolves around SEO, analytics, blogging, and social media. He has spoken at multiple national conferences and done countless webinars on topics ranging from e-mail marketing to social media and Web analytics. He's definitely a fairly nice guy.

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  • Carrie Fuller

    Kyle this is something I have been thinking about a lot lately! I was just talking to a guy who used to work for mobile company and now is at Yahoo as a mobile ad guy who told me Apps could be obsolete in two years! As the interactive web manager for a university I’m trying to figure out the best route to take when it comes to mobile. We like many of the responsive sites EDU’s are building (William & Mary and Notre Dame) but we’re not positive that’s the way to go. We have a mobile site that we’ve made about seven pages for, but it needs work. I would love to hear your thoughts!

    • Kyle James

      Hey Carrie,
      My personally opinion is to separate content from style completely. People are consuming so much of websites

  • Eric Olsen

    Totally on board, Kyle. I think apps will probably still make sense for things like games, when downloading a large file ahead of time can assist with real-time interaction speed. Not sure if there would be any such gamification (or bandwidth issues) for Higher Ed moving forward, but I think mobile/responsive non-app solutions will probably make the most sense.

    • Kyle James

      Eric – I think short term you are absolutely correct about games. They are very complicated pieces of software with lots of code usually. I think long term even that will migrate though. I’ll just use Angry Birds as an example. 

  • Cameron n

    I also think the physical nature of our moible devices is about to change.  I fully expect devices like the Samsung PC slate to start replacing laptops ( I can’t imaging ever buying a laptop again).  As soon as this shift becomes apparent I would expect a something like Mac Air slate to appear on the market soon after. At this point a huge section of the current apps market vanishes.  

  • Danny Newman

    The problem is that HTML5 web apps just cannot give the user the same functionality as a native app. Google and Apple want users to continue buying apps rather than using their mobile browsers. Since Google and Apple earn so much revenue from their respective app stores, they have no incentive to improve HTML5 performance on their mobile browsers in the near future. See the recent TechCrunch article on this

    I agree with the quote you posted from John Smart, that apps will eventually disappear over the long-term, but 2020 is a long-time away. Schools today should have both apps and a mobile-optimized website.

  • Gordon Anderson

    Web apps are just much nicer to develop for – I’ve developed several native iOS apps and several HTML5 interactive Javascript web apps.  

    Given the incredible growth rate of Android device sales, most developers really want to be able to target both Android and iOS markets with at least a common code base – if you develop two native and one web app, its just so much more expensive.

    For interactive eLearning apps you need good quality smooth animations, but these are now fairly common [ iOS has GPU accelerated webkit 3D transform hacks, and Ice Cream Sandwich is fully GPU accelerated now I believe also… smoothe and esponsive UI is what most people mean when they talk about ‘performance’

    I recently created a handy Math app which helps kids learn multiplication – basically you draw colored rectangles to multiply.  This is a pure javascript web app, which runs on modern HTML5 browsers and runs ok on iPad and Android devices.

    Im calling it the DoctorX Contraption – free app is here :

    My plan is to wrap this in a native shell and deliver to both the android and iPad app stores.

    Very likely in a couple of years we will see quite powerful 3D games developed in Javascript to run in browser on tablets and web.. and that really is a win-win for developers and consumers.   Most games have a large server component and a scripting language, so its not that big a stretch to do the heavier AI on the server.

    Were going to see some great eLearning apps come down the pipe!

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  • Claire Love

    Interesting article found another great one re social media and apps on

  • Scott Cushman

    I’ve been trying to educate administrators on this subject for several years now with mixed success. I made the case quite eloquently, and I may need to cite you. 

    If you have the time and budget, the best choice is to do both now. But if you can only choose one, a choice I think is familiar to those of us who work for small institutions, a mobile site template is the way to go. 

    I’ve also often found the people who want an app sometimes don’t know the difference between an app and a mobile site, they just read an article in a trade publication and felt like there might be the magical solution to recruiting/donor relations/retention/etc. … and the idea of supporting multiple platforms other than their personal device can also take some explaining. “So you want an app that works only on Blackberrys that will bring in more student applications? Really?” Yes, there are ways now to develop parallel apps for different platforms more easily, but it’s still a time consuming process just to replicate what a mobile site could easily achieve. 

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