The App is Dead (OK Not Really, But The Browser Is Back)

"If it can be done on the Web, build it for the Web; if it can’t, build an app."
Alex Schleifer, GM of the Media Lab at SAY Media

Thanks to Apple's iOS and Google's open source Android OS, smartphone and tablet apps have enjoyed a period of astounding success over the past few years. Towards the end of 2010, Wired magazine even declared that "the Web is dead." Who needs browsers when we have apps galore on our smartphones and tablets? Well, fast forward 18 months and things have changed. Browsers are starting to trend up again and some online businesses are turning away from apps.

SAY Media's Alex Schleifer is the lead designer for ReadWriteWeb's re-design (currently in process) and his quote above captures why mobile websites are enjoying a renaissance. When smartphone apps first got popular, after Apple's App Store was launched in July 2008, they offered an immediate jump in functionality for mobile content. Previously, mobile websites were minimalist and often painful to use. Compared to mobile sites circa 2008, iPhone apps were attractive and easy to use. Apps could also tap into functionality native to the OS, for example using GPS in a location app.

But with the rise of HTML5, the next generation of the Web's markup language HTML, the attractiveness and functionality of mobile websites has gotten richer and more interactive. That's what Schleifer means by "if it can be done on the Web, build it for the Web." In 2008, it may not have been possible to get the functionality you wanted via a mobile website. But in 2012, more often than not it can be done on the Web.

One of the most compelling case studies of this shift away from apps and back to websites came earlier this week from Jason Pontin, the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Technology Review. iPad and Android tablet apps for magazines have been a big trend over the past couple of years, spurred on by dwindling print magazine sales. But according to Postin, the dream quickly soured. After launching iOS and Android apps in January 2011, Technology Review ran into development, sales and other difficulties. The overhead was too much:

"Absurdly, many publishers ended up producing six different versions of their editorial product: a print publication, a conventional digital replica for Web browsers and proprietary software, a digital replica for landscape viewing on tablets, something that was not quite a digital replica for portrait viewing on tablets, a kind of hack for smart phones, and ordinary HTML pages for their websites."

All of that work and for disappointing sales. Technology Review sold just 353 subscriptions through the iPad. Postin also noted the "walled garden" effect of having its media content effectively locked up in an app, which resulted in less of the "linky-ness" that readers expect on the Web.

Technology Review has decided to "kill" its iOS and Android apps, opting instead for an HTML5 website that will work across all devices.

Of course not all online businesses will do this. Some products, such as Flipboard and Evernote, function much better as native apps. Flipboard's beautiful user interface and Evernote's smooth navigation would suffer by running in the browser.

Some products will opt to cover their bases and have both an app and a mobile site. Amazon flirted with an HTML5 site to replace its Kindle iPad app, to see if it could route around Apple's 30% cut of sales made within apps. But despite the impressive functionality of the HTML5 Kindle site, the fact remains that the iPad app offers a slightly better experience for Kindle users.

Ultimately, deciding whether to kill an app will be both an economic as well as functional decision. For Technology Review, and for us at ReadWriteWeb, building an all-purpose fully responsive HTML5 website makes much more sense. Build once and deploy on multiple platforms. That's what the browser is good at.

Make no mistake, there is a trend happening: HTML5 websites are usurping apps in some areas. Media apps will be one of the first categories to be killed off, but over time we'll see more apps migrate to HTML5. Particularly as some very large companies on the Web, notably Facebook and Google, are heading in this direction already.

What has your experience been like with HTML5 websites on mobile devices, compared to native apps?

UPDATE: See the opposite side of the argument - apps over HTML5 - in this follow-up post. Featuring words of wisdom from Twitter app lead Benjamin Sandofsky.