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.