Mobile Apps: And Now for a Contrarian's View

They're Hot Now, but the Web Will Win in the End

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Unless you've been in a cave for the past 18 months, you know mobile apps are red hot. Who hasn't heard "Check this out" from a friend giddy over a cool new app?

I have news for you: What's behind the app craze is more hype than substance. Yes, Apple has roughly 65,000 in its App Store, but the overall audience for any given app is surprisingly small. And remember, only a fraction of all mobile subscribers have ever even downloaded an app.

My take? Apps have reached their zenith, soon to be eclipsed by the mobile web.

Best consumer experience
So what's the argument, that apps are wrong? Hardly. Native apps are cool -- they're relatively easy to find and download and they provide content, utility and fun in a seamless experience you can't get anywhere else. They're thriving because they provide the best consumer experience. Today.

But when you look at how many steps it takes to use an app, it's actually a lot to ask of a consumer -- open the app store, search for an app, download it, then open it. Wouldn't it be much simpler to go to a URL to get that same functionality?

Unfortunately, that same functionality isn't available yet on the mobile web. But it will be. Recently Andy Miller, CEO of Quattro Wireless, showed me mobile ad units that induced a double take. You'd swear, and I did, that they had to be running within an app. Turns out they're just regular old mobile web banners that now expand and include video, slide shows and more. When you add in GPS and the ability to access native functionality on the phone -- all coming soon -- the need for a native app goes away.

It's not a new story. Remember two years ago when desktop apps and widgets were all the rage? Nothing was cooler. How many do you currently have installed?

Dramatic fall
I'm not saying there's no place for apps or even that they're not the ideal solution in some instances, but I'm convinced they're headed for a dramatic fall as the mobile web matures.

More than ever, people want to be fully functional and entertained on the go. Apps have stepped in to help make that happen. Want to manage your business trip receipts? There's an app for that. Need to know what song is playing on the radio? There's an app for that, too. But there are serious chinks in the mobile-apps armor. Besides being expensive to develop for multiple platforms, the find-and-download experience that doesn't seem so onerous now will feel antiquated when the mobile web catches up.

Furthermore, apps often involve an approval process by a third party, which means you may have to rely on someone else to publish and deliver bug fixes and feature updates. Why would you want to give another company that kind of control over your brand if you don't have to? The mobile Web gives you total control. If generating revenue is your target, why give Apple or some other group a significant chunk of your revenue right off the top? It's no surprise that we're now seeing lots of developers upset with this process.

The web wins, again
A fully evolved mobile web will change the need for apps. The mobile web of the future will deliver experiences richer than those found on today's desktop, giving mobile users native functionality, contextual relevancy and GPS targeting. It will free developers to create mobile sites optimized for a couple browser types rather than specific app versions for Apple, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and others, as is required today.

History and statistics hint at what's next. The browser won on the desktop over apps and widgets. It's just as likely to win on the phone. Statistics tell us that mobile users are chomping at the bit for the mobile web. EMarketer estimates that 26% of mobile phone subscribers will log on to the mobile Web at least once per month in 2009. For those of you counting, that's a total of 73.7 million mobile internet users already. And growing. Imagine the traffic once sites become optimized for the mobile mobs.

In the end, the focus should be on the best user experience, which I believe will eventually be delivered through the mobile Web, not through an endless parade of cool apps. Even today, at the height of the apps movement, the mobile Web is a better way to get information and functionality out to mobile consumers with any degree of critical mass. All the apps in the world aren't going to change that.

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Ben Gaddis is director of mobile and emerging media strategy at T3.

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