Ever since I became involved with the Internet in ’94, there has been debate around the browser’s suitability as a universal client. The argument that the browser could replace the desktop app ecosystem with a single interface was compelling. From a service provider or developer’s perspective, the benefit was obvious: write-once for multiple platforms. Indeed, Oracle even tried to hedge its own bets by releasing it own browser.
It’s taken well over a decade, but broadband penetration, the emergence of cloud services and the adoption of standards have finally helped the browser realize much this promise. Today’s web apps are more sophisticated than many older desktop clients. And HTML 5 will take it even further.
So now that the mobile Internet and Apple’s smartphone hegemony are beginning to heat up, we’re beginning to hear… brace yourself- disdain for apps and heady aspirations for the mobile browser as a universal client.
Developing mobile apps for Apple, RIM, Android and PalmOS is an expensive proposition. And it’s particularly onerous if your target audience is divided equally across any 3 platforms. But regardless of distribution (closed app store, app market, direct download) on mobile devices, or how painful the model is, mobile apps are here to stay. Why? Because just as it has been on the PC, consumers drive the prevalent model through adoption and engagement.
What is an app to a consumer? Simply put, on a mobile, it’s a bookmark to an experience. An app is an icon, followed by an interaction. On a handset with a limited form factor and inherent network latency (yes, even 4G), an “app” is the simplest way to get to specific information and functionality. Consumers don’t care how these apps are built. They don’t have an opinion about Apple’s selection process, the splintering of Android or the nuances of Java. Consumers just want the selection and the experience.
There are countless studies suggesting that the mobile web will win. Inevitably, as mobile browsing becomes easier, it will see large gains. But the desktop browsing metaphor won’t fully satisfy mobile users. If history is any indication, the mobile web will eventually win. And when it does, it will have evolved to resemble an iteration of the very app ecosystem it displaces.