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Monday, February 25, 2008

Standalone Mobile Apps vs Web Apps on Mobile

Michael Mace at Mobile Opportunity has a very well-observed post on why he thinks mobile applications are dying, and are being replaced by web applications instead.

"app development on the mobile web sucks less than the alternative"

And Michael adds a very witty obituary:

"In loving memory of the mobile applications business. Adoring child of Java, Psion, Palm OS and Windows Mobile; doting parent of Symbian, Access Linux Platform, and S60; constant companion of Handango and Motricity. Scared the crap out of Microsoft in 2000. Passed away from strangulation at the hands of the mobile industry in 2008. Awaiting resurrection as a web service in 2009. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make a donation to the Yahoo takeover defense fund."

In general, I agree. Barcelona was full of widgets & web services, and I've been telling my handset software customers for some years that they should be working on the best browser implementations they can.

I've also often pointed out that future operator/vendor "next gen walled garden" initiatives like IMS are driving the most creative developers towards AJAX and Web 2.0. And I certainly feel that the concept of "aftermarket" mobile applications (ie downloaded by end users) is almost an irrelevance to most users, apart from maybe games. Normal people don't download software to their phones, even if Nokia does try to rebrand them "multimedia computers". Come to that, normal people don't care if their phone is "smart" or not - most smartphone owners neither know nor care what's powering their phone or what it's theoretical capabilities might be.

There's also been no mechanism for popular mobile apps to spread virally - you can't just tell all your friends how cool something is, and suggest that they download it now. You need to know which phone, which OS/firmware, which operator, which data tariff etc etc. There's friction. The web is easier, at least once everyone has a decent-ish browser and a flat-ish data plan (give it 3 years in developed markets, I'd say).

I don't think the situation is quite that clear-cut though, and that there will be plenty of reasons to continue using native apps on smartphones, together with other virtual machines and on-device portals like Java, Flash, BREW and SurfKitchen.

In particular, the following use cases remain for native (or virtual machine) device applications:

  • Pre-installed applications at the factory.
  • Pre-installed applications by the operator or other service-provider (eg RIM)
  • Pre-installed applications by the retailer or distributor
  • Certain markets are a bit more application-savvy (eg the US, with its history of PDA users), although other markets still view installing (or even thinking about) handset software as a geek-only activity.
  • Applications installed by enterprises for their end users
  • Applications like VoIP that need access to underlyig device APIs and capabilities like codecs.
  • Applications (maybe IMS apps) for which carriers are able to design & enforce a complex over-the-air automated download & install process. Likely to only work in situations where the user has a deeply-customised phone, rather than a 'vanilla' device.
  • Games, and even then only by certain demographics.
  • End-to-end services coupled to specific devices or a limited range, rather than generic handsets (eg BlackBerry, Amazon Kindle)

Bottom line - I totally agree with Michael that web-based applications are becoming much more important relative to "installed" mobile apps. But I think it's a little early for the obituary, deeply amusing though it is.


Anonymous said...

But one trend on the web, is to go from web based application to Rich Desktop Application, as the limitations of the browser become ovsious.

I think that Mobile is alreayd at this step. Java app are mostly RDA for mobiles. The only missing link is the one between Java and Web. They don't speak to each others....

The other interesting trend, is the iPhone: probably the best mobile browser, but also numerous mobile applications...And definitively downloaded by end users.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dean, will blog my thoughts tomorrow.

Eran Sharar said...

Hi Dean, the post is really interesting. I would appreciate your view on the impressive user adoption of WidSets and Shozu, 2 start-up companies who develop J2ME based phone clients and distribute them over the Web? Thanks

Gustaf Alstromer said...

mobile web is clearly winning but it lacks two things to really kill the app development:

1. javascript

2. flash lite as a stable browser plugin

when one of these or both are supported on a range of devices then that will be the end of java me

Eran Sharar said...

Hey Gustaf. I'm interested to read what you day on how long will it take for these capabilities to enter the Mobile eco-system - phones computing power, browsers compatibility, Mobile sites support, developers community...
Cheers, Chuck