Netly: The Third Screen

The Battle Between the Mobile Web and Native Apps

Posted on: September 17, 2009

50777975Ben Gaddis, of The Think Tank, makes a compelling argument in Ad Age today that native apps—for example, the 75,000 you can download at Apple’s Apps Store to your iPhone—are doomed. In his opinion, which I disagree with, apps are headed for a big fall, as the Mobile Web matures and takes off:

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.

This is the fundamental tension in the apps world today. If you’re a big company and you need an app, you’re faced with a bewildering and expensive array of choices: Do I just build it for the iPhone? Or do I go cross platform and have my developer build for Blackberry and Android as well? Or do I ignore it all and make my website’s mobile interface work better on the third screen?

The Web Absolutists, with Marc Andreessen at the head of the parade, say the Web is the operating system and websites are the apps. Everything else, from Windows 7 to OS X, is doomed to fail. It’s certainly a compelling vision. Says Gaddis:

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.

One reason the iPhone took off is it works EVERYWHERE. That’s because, thankfully, most apps don’t need a persistent connection to the Net. If the iPhone had relied on AT&T’s spotty network, the iPhone would have failed in year one. As it is, the only real consumer push back comes from frustration over AT&T—not the phone itself.

Of course, some day, high-speed access to the Internet will be ubiquitous. It’ll work equally well on the streets of Manhattan and in the Himalayas. You’ll be able to hop on the Net in every subway car, airplane and automobile in the world. Some day. Yup.

Shall we say 10 years? Five years if we’re optimistic. Then again, it’s entirely possible that we’ll never get perfect Net access, and we’ll have to make do with islands of connectivity. We could still get to a point where the Mobile Web gives native apps a run for the money, I guess. But we’re still years away fro even that.

In the meantime, the mobile devices that thrive will depend on native apps. That’s why the competition between Apple, RIM, Palm and Android/Google is so riveting these days.

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