Little Love for the Mobile Web in App-Adoring World

Much-Larger Platform Goes Hungry While Marketers Throw Mobile Budgets at IPhones, but Is That Changing?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The love affair between marketers and mobile apps is in full bloom, but the obsession with apps and the niche market they represent is coming at the expense of the mobile web, which is exponentially bigger and starving for brand dollars.

Nearly 20% of U.S. mobile subscribers used a downloaded app in January, according to ComScore, but that audience is spread across myriad devices; no one app can reach that entire population unless it is reformatted a number of times. Yet marketers are throwing their relatively tiny mobile budgets behind iPhone apps rather than mobile websites that have the potential to get in front of more consumers.

Consider: the largest app category, iPhone apps, at best only reaches 25% of smartphone users -- a fast-growing segment that represented 42.7 million Americans in January, according to ComScore.

Compare that to nearly 30% of all mobile subscribers that used a phone's web browser on any device accessing the internet, from iPhones and BlackBerrys to Android phones. What's more, phones will overtake PCs as the most common device to access the internet worldwide by 2013, according to a study from information-technology research company Gartner.

So why are mobile sites taking a backseat to iPhone apps? Blame the Apple aura.

Better experience
"Developers are bullish on the mobile web," said Kyle Outlaw, experience lead at Razorfish. "But it's hard to convince clients." The iPhone app won its preeminence with marketers the same way it did with consumers: by presenting a user experience never before seen in mobile.

After the iPhone came along, "It wasn't about mobile anymore; it was about the iPhone," he said.

The case isn't helped by the fact that mobile websites look low-rent compared to apps. Apps also win on rich media and usability vs. mobile websites. Most m-dot sites are a low-fi version of their wired-web counterparts, though agency folks are looking forward to the expected updates that will result in better-looking, higher-functioning mobile sites.

Apps can also use other hardware features on a phone, like its camera or compass, while mobile sites can only really tell where a user is located. Plus, with slow-load speeds, categories popular in apps, such as gaming, are not feasible on the web. Because an app runs offline, users don't have to worry about a slow or spotty network connection.

It remains to be seen how long the iPhone app addiction will last, but the mobile web -- what Mr. Outlaw calls "device-agnostic" since it works on any operating system -- will eventually break through when the iPhone buzz dies down and the consumer can get equally rich app experiences on non-Apple operating systems. Or, if the iPhone's market share ever falls behind that of Android devices, the fastest-growing mobile-operating system.

"I don't think people will continue to skip over the mobile web," said Richard Ting, R/GA's VP-executive creative director, mobile and emerging platforms group. "I think it'll come into play this year."

"App development is not easily scalable," said Mr. Outlaw. It's expensive and time-intensive to get apps on different phones. Not only that, more and more smartphones are coming on market and iPhone's slice of the pie will shrink as more feature-phone users sign up for their first smart device. That fragmentation of the market will coincide with advertisers amping up their mobile presence ... and marketers will have to look beyond the app to get at growing audiences on a growing number of devices.

"Right now we're in the Age of the App, but as browsers become more sophisticated, mobile websites will be on the rise and users will barely be able to tell the difference between the app experience and the browser," said Daniel Rosen, head of AKQA Mobile.

"The mobile web will have to be addressed this year," said Mr. Ting. "If you don't have a mobile website up now, it's going to feel like the year 2000, when brands didn't have websites up."

How to make your mobile site stand out

R/GA VP-Executive Creative Director Richard Ting offers tips for building a mobile website that's more than just an online site jammed into a phone.
  • Don't just re-create a PC website for mobile, but pare down content for exactly what consumers are looking for on that device. "When you're on the phone, it's a different context," he said. "Consumers are snacking on content; they don't want the full experience."
  • Good mobile websites should feel like apps for consumers. New features like drop-down menus and expandable panels are expected soon.
  • The little things, like a mobile site that redirects when a user taps in the web URL, will make mobile-web adoption smoother.
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