Mobile Apps: Native or Web? Where are we going?

Patrick Mork - GetJar

You have a couple choices when it comes to mobile apps. You can download and install a mobile app that’s been specifically created for your smartphone, or you can simply hop online and use a web-app through your smartphone’s web browser. Now that web technology is advancing to the point where web-apps can perform many of the tasks traditionally associated with native apps, we have to wonder where apps are headed. There’s been more and more discussion among developers, handset vendors, platform owners and now advertisers on where the future of mobile lies. Will mobile apps of the future be native- or web-based?

GetJar’s Patrick Mork gives us his take on where the mobile app market is headed. Are we headed for a web-app kind of world? Or will native apps keep going strong?

Native apps or web apps
On the one hand, proponents of the applications camp will argue that the future is in native mobile applications. Given Apple’s 3 billion downloads and GetJar‘s 900 million downloads to date there certainly is a lot of momentum for applications in the market. Not to mention consumer awareness. Hardly a day goes by that some company or other, like CNN, Wells Fargo or Pizza Hut actively promotes its mobile applications to generate buzz with consumers and position themselves as a brand / service on the cutting edge of technology.

What’s encouraging about that is that development of mobile applications isn’t just limited to the iPhone OS. Although Apple has received the lion’s share of media attention, Android Market now boasts an estimated 38,000 mobile applications to date. On GetJar, nearly 20% of all recent applications submissions are for Android developers, up from nearly zero a year ago.  Symbian, although smaller in the US, also remains a significant force. The Symbian OS, which has an installed base of over 250 million handsets globally, is particularly dominant in Europe and some emerging markets. In our case it’s the 2nd largest platform following Java – which still has the largest installed base of handsets globally.

Advantage: Native mobile app
The advantages of native mobile applications are legion. First, apps provide a deeper, richer and more engaging experience then mobile web apps. This is even more true of applications running on more powerful handsets. As screen resolutions improve, memory increases and navigation becomes easier, there is a direct impact on the take up of mobile applications by mobile consumers. Because the application is installed on the handset, it can access specific hardware (motion-sensors, for example) on the device toprovide deeper functionality to the user  This means a faster, more immersive experience for consumers.

Another big advantage of native applications is that they don’t necessarily need to be connected to the Web in order to work.   As anyone who uses an iPhone in New York City will tell you, having to rely on a mobile connection can be a bit dubious at the best of times. These apps are usually built to run independently of the web or ca at least disable web functionality in a way that doesn’t ruin the user experience.

Lastly, the reality is that the phones that power apps will always be more powerful then the networks they run on. This is simple economics. The development and roll out cycles of new handsets is far faster then that of high speed mobile networks.  Nokia, Samsung and others are introducing handsets continually which are more and more powerful and make application usage, discovery and storage easier. By comparison it takes years and billions of dollars of investment to improve network speeds and infrastructure.

Don’t ignore web apps
The important thing to note here is that mass-market consumers don’t necessarily differentiate between what we consider smartphones (phones that run on a native operating system like iPhone, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile) and feature phones (phones running on Java) when consuming apps.  As a matter of fact the number 1 handset for GetJar in the US is the Samsung Impression, which runs on Java but boasts many of the above characteristics that tend to increase application consumption.  Carriers like AT&T and Sprint have been quick to spot this and introduce mid level phones, which they position as “quasi” smartphones when in reality they don’t run native applications.

So what’s the problem with apps  Well the main one is fragmentation.  With so many handsets and so many platform developers and now, increasingly, brand owners face a steep challenge taking apps to the mass-market.  The proliferation of platforms adds costs, complexity and increases time to market. It also makes the communication and marketing of apps difficult for media agencies.

Contenders of mobile web argue that making mobile web applications solves this fragmentation issue. By developing apps to run off mobile web browsers they argue that you reduce costs, eliminate the need to deal with multiple platforms and also can more easily distribute your content. Our own experience distributing Mobile Site Shortcuts actually does reinforce this.  Recently we released news stating that Facebook had done 50M downloads on GetJar. This is entirely true but actually all these downloads were shortcuts to the Facebook mobile site as opposed to actual apps. The thinking here when we decided to launch site shortcuts was that many consumers simply wanted to access content easily and quickly and wouldn’t really differentiate between sites and apps. Shortcuts would also allow brands and developers to focus their resources on making apps only for high end devices while maintaining a “basic” or “light” experience for feature phone users by using their mobile site. Since our system automatically detects a users phone we’re able to provide apps to smartphone users and shortcuts to everyone else. At least this way there’s something for everyone.

The reality
In truth, the reality is that brands and developers who want reach will have to do both. Consumers buying high-end smartphones like the Droid, iPhone, Samsung Moment or Nokia N72 will expect richer, deeper applications that run natively on their handset. Many other consumers though, particularly in emerging markets or even markets with limited handset subsidies, will be more then happy with the new generation of powerful feature phones. From our point of view it makes little difference since we support both apps across all major platforms, not to mention web apps.  Developers and brand owners, however, will really have to give careful consideration to who their target audience is, what handset are they likely to use and what is the users expectation of the overall experience. The best bet, though, would be to focus on the smartphone platforms with the widest audience and then complement this with an optimized mobile web experience. Which smartphone platform you might ask? That’s the subject of a whole other article at this point…

About the Author
Patrick Mork is CMO for GetJar, the second largest mobile app store in the world.

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