Too Many Apps for That: How Developers Can Survive the Overload

Why Clashing Platforms and Standards Should Make Marketers Rethink Their Mobile Strategies

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
With more than half a million mobile apps in circulation, we're perilously close to reaching a bubble in the "app-internet". The numbers alone are staggering: Apple now has more than 300,000 apps available in its App Store , Google boasts over 100,000 apps available for Android, Research In Motion has 10,000 apps available for its Blackberry phones and now Microsoft is joining the fray with over 1000 apps available for Windows Phone 7.

And that's largely just apps for smartphones. Now we are seeing app stores emerge for every manner of device and platform. Apple is about to roll out the Mac App Store for desktops, Google is making apps available for Google TV, and even PlayStation and Xbox are in the mix, amongst a host of others.

Suddenly brand marketers who had made iPhone applications the centerpiece of their mobile strategy are faced with supporting a mushrooming set of app ecosystems, device-types and operating systems – all which are written in everything from Objective C to JavaScript to Silverlight and even Flash. It's shaping up to be a development quagmire.

For marketers who were looking at novel ways to connect with consumers-on-the-go, the app landscape has become anything but simple. Just to keep up, marketers need to act more like software developers than customer generators, which probably doesn't rank high on the priority list of most CMOs.

Given all of that, it only makes sense that we will soon see brand marketers start to rethink their app strategy and begin opting for open standard web applications. These web apps are built to run in any device with a browser (from the iPhone to the iPad to Samung's new Galaxy to Google TV) and utilize common standards like HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. In short, it's the developers dream of "write once, deploy everywhere." And for marketers, it just makes sense.

Here's a look at some of the players who are embracing a mobile web app driven future:

  • SproutCore: One of the most promising entrants in the web app space, SproutCore describes itself as HTML5 application framework for building responsive, desktop-caliber apps in any modern web browser, without plugins. Apple utilizes the SproutCore framework for its cloud-based MobileMe service and, the online extension of its iWork software. To demonstrate how web apps can match native apps, SproutCore recently rewrote NPR's winning iPad application in HTML5, delivering all of the same functionality – including remarkably smooth scrolling for mobile or desktop browsing.
  • Sencha: In a similar vein, Sencha makes application frameworks that allow developers to create application experiences using web-standard technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. The company's best demo is for Kiva , one of the leaders in micro-finance. Kiva's offering is built on top of Sencha for Google Android and Apple iOS. Claiming over a 1m developers, Sencha is hosting its own development conference in San Francisco later this month.
  • Typekit: Started by Jeff Veen (ex-Google, ex-Adaptive Path), Typekit is a technical solution to an artistic problem. The company provides a subscription-based service for linking to high-quality Open Type fonts sourced from premiere type foundries. The goal is to run these fonts in actual code instead of displaying them as images or Flash, both of which slow page responsiveness – or in the case of Flash, won't run in most mobile browsers. High profile clients include The New York Times, which just redesigned its Opinion pages with the Typekit service.
  • Mozilla and Google: Both Mozilla and Google are pushing to turn their browsers into an Open Web App Store that will work like iTunes but be built into Firefox and Chrome. However, instead of selling native apps, these stores will feature web apps that are built on open standards like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Google's Chrome Web Store and Mozilla's Open Web App Store are scheduled to open for business in 2011. For a sneak peek check out Mozilla's video demonstration. There is little doubt that the browsers of today are going to be the operating systems of tomorrow.

While open web app stores are still a bit off, there's already a robust web app ecosystem in play today – readily embraced by publishers and developers alike. Google's Gmail, Docs and YouTube lead the charge here as do Facebook and Flickr's robust mobile offering.

Apple also has a fine web app showcase in iTunes and OpenAppMarket is optimized for mobile browsing and consumption. There's also Apple's Ready-For-iPad website showcase that features offerings from ESPN, Virgin America, and Nike among others.

How significant is the shift to open standard web apps? Even Microsoft is shifting its strategy to embrace HTML5 over its homegrown Silverlight in many cases. "HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple's) iOS platform," Microsoft's Bob Muglia told ZDNET. Ditto for Adobe. The company recently demonstrated a Flash-to-HTML5 conversion tool last month at Adobe's MAX 2010 conference.

Of course for marketers there are trade-offs in developing web apps versus native apps. Native apps take much better advantage of the mobile device's hardware capabilities. That means better integration of phone features – like the camera, for instance – that makes popular apps like Instagram so compelling. Native apps are also faster, as they bypass the browser to run directly on the client. And for delivering actual software or games, it's an excellent model with promising ad platforms (Apple's iAd and Google's AdMob acquisition) to boot.

But given the desire for most developers, and certainly marketers, to "write once and deploy everywhere" and faster 4G mobile connection speeds on the way, the differences between web apps and native apps will be sure to shrink over time. Shortly, most brand marketers will find that opting for open web standards is a choice well worth making.

Garrick Schmitt is managing director of experience and platforms at Razorfish, whose clients include Microsoft, Best Buy, Intel, Mattel and Mercedes. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual digital brand experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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