Native Apps vs Mobile Web: The Apple Factor

Mobile apps versus mobile web. Why is there a debate, how long has it been going and who’s winning? To understand the difference between mobile apps and mobile web is to better understand the answer to these questions. First, the history. When the debate began and why? From the word “mobile”, it doesn’t take much to conclude the debate is relatively new. Some would say since Apple came on the scene with its iPhone in 2007 and then the App Store in 2008. Although personal digital assistants (PDAs) and early smartphones have provided on-the-go internet access since the new millennial, the experience was not an overly pleasant one due to limitations in network bandwidth, screen display technology and browser navigation controls. Furthermore, these early mobile devices provided little to no apps. Apps were ‘features’ of the device. What the device came with out-of-the-box. Both being a non-factor during this early period, mobile apps and mobile web drew little comparison and therefore little debate. Apple changed that in the summers of 2007 and 2008.

On June 29, 2007, Apple unleashed the iPhone onto the world. The iPhone made ‘using’ the internet as distinct from ‘accessing’ it a reality on a mobile device. Although it wasn’t the first smartphone to provide internet browsing, its unique rendering of native websites, i.e. non-mobile optimized, combined with its revolutionary multi-touchscreen technology provided a very enjoyable browsing experience that led to a dramatic increase in mobile internet usage. Mobile web was off and running.

Apple followed that up one year later with another home run in its App Store, introduced as part of an iTunes update that coincided with the launch of the iPhone 3G. The App Store brought about an insatiable demand for apps. What started out as one store with 500 apps serving solely the US market has since ballooned to more than 90 stores worldwide with more than 400,000 apps. The App Store and ubiquitous catchphrase “there’s an App for that” have become hallmarks, trademarks to be precise, of the Apple brand. The word “app” was awarded the 2010 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. People couldn’t, still can’t, get enough apps. Apps are novel, cool, functional, relevant and connected. Mobile Apps provide seamless integration with web resources bringing the internet to people on the go in a form that is functional and fast.

The iPhone and App Store kicked off a craze that other mobile device manufacturers and operating system developers could not ignore. It wasn’t long before others were developing multi-touchscreen smartphones and launching their own application storefronts to capitalize upon the mobile web and mobile app craze that was underway. There are now over fifty (50) application storefronts available from various device manufacturers, operating system developers, wireless operators and independent companies. The mobile app store market analytics firm Distimo provides excellent insight into these various stores. The notable ones include Research in Motion’s (RIM) AppWorld, Google’s Market for Android devices and Microsoft’s Marketplace for its Windows Phone.

As apps and app storefronts continue to proliferate, developers and consumers are better understanding the costs involved in developing and maintaining apps for different mobile platforms. And it’s not insignificant! But it can also mean competitive suicide not to develop for any one device. Developers and consumers have therefore started looking more to mobile web as a solution to these rising costs. Serving up content and providing app functionality to mobile devices through the web significantly reduces development costs and consumer prices. Sound familiar? It’s the client-server vs web-application story revisited.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series where we start to explore the mobile web side of the equation.

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