Native Apps vs Mobile Web Debate Rages On

photo-1423784346385-c1d4dac9893aThere has been a long standing battle for dominance between the mobile web and mobile applications. Domain investors heatedly debate the issue because we believe it’s a key performance indicator in domain name usage. Two years ago Morgan wrote a post about smartphone users spending only 20% of their phone usage on the mobile web. In the article, he poses the question “will this 20% go up as more mobile users get online over the next 3-5 years?”

ComScore’s survey later that year found that native apps were used roughly seven times as much as mobile browsers. However a majority of that traffic was funneled into a small number of apps and large brands, which holds true to this day. What’s more, a predominant amount of that usage is dedicated to entertainment, social media, chat and retail apps owned by Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay. Facebook leads the pack by a large margin and others like Pandora Radio and Youtube follow depending on the age range. Only a minor amount of app time is spent on what seems like productivity. Unless they were surveying social media managers and videographers, the rest would imply it’s largely recreational use. Forrester Research revealed this year that 88% of in-app time is spent on just 5 apps: Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Gmail, and FB Messenger.

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Image Credit: Opera MediaWorks

A survey conducted by Opera Media Works in mid 2015 revealed that the number of US app impressions is closer to 90% now. However in the rest of the world, with the exception of the Oceania region, mobile web still dominates. Venturebeat has cheekily intimated that it remains unclear whether this means the US is ahead of or behind the curve.

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Image Credit: Opera MediaWorks

Globally, app impressions dominate with about 56% of the total, and it gets the lion’s share of revenue at nearly 71%. However, at the end of the third fiscal quarter of 2015, a report from Morgan Stanley (pdf download) showed that mobile browser’s unique visitor traffic is two times larger than mobile apps’.

Further investigation reveals another layer of complexity to the analysis of this struggle for dominance. At the conclusion of last year, a survey from Quixey was released showing the following:

  • Only 12% of respondents said that they would still prefer to download an app, even if they could get all the features and functionality of an app without having to download it

  • Nearly half of the respondents (49.7%) dislike using mobile apps for two primary reasons: they chew up device storage (26.1%) or they are slow and have inconsistent performance (23.6%).

  • More than 2 out of 3 people (66.4%) prefer to use the mobile web because: they have access to all content in a single place (32.5%), they don’t need to install anything new (23.3%) or they don’t need to flip between multiple apps (10.6%)

  • 69.5% of people ages 18-34 cite user experience as what they like most about using mobile apps

  • The majority of people (34.4%) cite ‘features and functionalities’ as the primary reason they prefer mobile apps over mobile web, with ‘user experience’ not far behind at 28.4%

Emarketer expanded on this survey and stated that “push notifications and alerts” was another key feature for apps. The famous information architect Peter Morville put it best when he said “We’re in an era of service ecosystems.”

So what does this all mean? It seems that apps, and only a handful of them, are currently winning. They have deep engagement in entertainment-like categories and yield the majority of revenue, while the mobile web is still being used in a more exploratory, researching, and for a lack of a better word, browsing manner. The last survey seems to indicate that people view apps as a necessary evil. Users would rather use the mobile web, but it lacks design and functionality. However, as long as deep engagement and advertising revenue are driving native app development faster than mobile browser and web advances, we probably won’t see a turnaround anytime soon.

I’m sure the debate will rage on into the next decade as we see technologists foster the Internet of Things (as they primarily live in mobile apps), and search engine giants like Google constantly overhaul their browsers and OS. One commenter on Morgan’s past article brought up the great point that as desktop software has evolved, they’ve largely moved to the cloud and web apps, and away from local applications with constant resource hogging updates. This is something that also came to light through the Quixey survey. I believe as the mobile web evolves in functionality, form and monetization method, as Google Now’s predictive search capabilities advance and blend with Chrome, and as Chrome’s mobile push notification technology grows, it will slowly decimate the app landscape. If mobile browser technology eventually allows its users to easily subscribe to push notifications from specific Internet capable devices, that would be a major blow to the future of the app industry.

By and large, I think the retooling of mobile browsers and large advancements in predictive search will knockout apps as we know them today. As a result, I’m sure the next debate that will gain traction is “domains vs predictive search.” Until that time however, I rest easy knowing that websites, email, and brands will need a domain name for the foreseeable future.

Have a different opinion or more to add? Let your voice be heard in the comment section!

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