Even as the battle rages over native apps vs. the mobile Web, the real question is already becoming “What comes next?” Developers are looking for ways to disrupt the so-called “App Economy,” especially as it pertains to Apple’s handling of the App Store. Assuming that the mobile Web’s cross-platform openness carries the day, as it has so many times before, what would such a mobile “Post-App Economy” look like and what would it offer for developers and users?
Predicting a Post-App Economy
The mobile Post-App Economy would be fundamentally social, browser-based and content-driven.
For now, we remain firmly entrenched in the era of the App Economy, dominated by native and hybrid offerings through the Apple App Store, Android Google Play, Windows Phone Marketplace and BlackBerry App World. But developers looking to circumvent the application store ecosystem are working toward a mobile Web-driven economy where the app stores are marginalized. In the short-term, look for the emergence of a dual economy combining the mobile Web and native app stores. The question is whether or not a true Post-App Economy driven by browsers and the social Web will ever fundamentally replace today’s largely native landscape.
The App Economy – as seen through iOS and Android – is a content economy. The vast majority of popular apps are media content driven: In one way or another, content is driven through a service: Instagram (photos), Spotify/Pandora/Rdio (music streaming), Evernote (content storage), Zite/Flipboard (articles), Netflix/Hulu+ (video), Words With Friends/Angry Birds (games), Twitter/Facebook (content creation and sharing).
Within this economy, Facebook and Twitter are both apps and platforms, serving as a way to discover and disseminate content. The numbers tell the tale: As of December 2011, one in every five minutes spent on the Web was devoted to social-networking sites. Facebook accounts for one in every seven minutes spent online and three-quarters of all social-networking minutes. 64% of U.S. smartphone users accessed social networking from their phones, and two out of every five smartphone owners accessed social networking every day, according to comScore.
The Post-App Economy could be driven by social interaction and discovery through Facebook and Twitter to mobile Web. “With the rise in social media applications on mobile, we’re seeing a shift beyond the single-purpose application back towards the mobile Web,” said Crave Labs CEO Jeff Peden.
The Near Future: A Dual Economy
In the present, content and media are being created specifically for native platforms and pushed to the varying application stores. That includes pure native apps written in native code for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, along with hybrid apps built with Web tools like HTML5, CSS and Java and then “wrapped” to take advantage of native platforms. Either way, the destination is the app store, not the Web.
For a variety of reasons, this ecosystem is starting to fragment. Content publishers, retail businesses and restaurants are slowly realizing that they do not need to have a presence in the App Store to build a successful mobile presence. For many, it is much more important to show up in search on a smartphone or tablet through the browser rather than an app. Sure, there are native apps designed specifically for local discovery and content consumption, but search remains king in both of those realms. Even Apple’s Siri delivers search results through the browser by accessing online databases like Yelp. Siri results are browser-driven, not delivered from native apps.
Over time, the mobile ecosystem will increasingly be split between games and utilities that function best on native platforms (Instagram or Infinity Blade, for instance) and more traditional content and local presences that use the mobile Web. While processor-heavy apps reliant on device APIs will be better written with native code, content-driven apps can be created more easily and “good enough” on the mobile Web.
“I think there is a start of a bifurcation of apps-versus-HTML5 mobile-optimized sites that began at the end of last year,” said Carnet Williams, VP of Sprout at ad firm InMobi. “And [that] is evident along lines that I would describe as ‘utilities and games’ versus ‘content.'”
The simple fact is that HTML5 and browser-based websites and services make much more sense for many content providers. For instance, look at the HTML5-driven websites for The Financial Times and BostonGlobe.com. These kinds of apps are cheaper and more convenient to develop, deploy and deliver all the essentials of a mobile content app. The same goes for sites and apps aimed at local businesses. Several companies have lined up to provide mobile-optimized site tools for small businesses, including DudaMobile and FiddleFly.
Williams sums up the Dual Economy nicely:
“I do not see the mobile Web becoming the predominant mobile content platform as much as an additional platform for native apps,” Williams said. “The immense success of both Flipboard and Instagram are great examples. Flipboard removes content from the mobile and desktop Web and presents it in a readable format in a native application. Instagram didn’t have a mobile Web app that replicated native functionality.”
Will We Ever Reach a True Post-App Economy?
The simple answer is not anytime soon. This is not a matter of consumer preference or business logistics, the rise of the mobile social portal or maintaining search-optimized websites. It is a technological imperative.
The mobile browser is just not ready for a true Post-App Economy. When we talk about mobile Web apps, HTML5, CSS and the like, we are talking about the quality and capabilities of the mobile browser. Currently, none of the major mobile browser providers have the capability to serve top-notch, app-like experiences that serve all user expectations. Mozilla is probably the company working most directly on this problem, with its Boot2Gecko smartphone operating system. Direct access to the full capabilities of mobile devices is the primary issue, but not the only one. Others include rendering, graphics and load time (all basically in the same category), along with HTML5 audio and video quality.
Facebook and Twitter want to give the ecosystem the tools it will need to create mobile Web presences that will benefit their platforms. Facebook has released a suite of tools called Ringmark to help mobile Web developers create browser-based apps that can be tied to the social network. While those tools are useful, and while social discovery is an important factor in creating a Post-App Economy, the mobile Web is still limited by the capabilities of the ecosystem reliant on HTML5 and mobile browser technology.
Users don’t care whether they’re using the mobile Web or native apps, they just head toward the best content and utilities. So the only way to fully disrupt the App Economy is to improve the capabilities of the mobile browser so it is more competitive with native apps. That’s not likely to happen for at least two to four years. And even then it will take users several more years to fully change their conditioned behavior (downloading applications from app stores). And the native platforms aren’t going to be stagnant during that time.
The true “Post-App Economy” won’t debut until 2020, if ever.
Top and bottom images courtesy of Shutterstock.