Mobile Apps vs. the Mobile Web: “It Doesn’t Matter to Consumers”

The latest in its series of discussions about the future of the internet, the Pew Internet Project released a new report this morning that wades into the mobile “apps vs. web” debate. It’s positioned as a metaphor or surrogate for a larger argument about the battle of platforms and the internet’s future:

It is in part a debate about the future of the personal computer vs. smaller, portable mobile devices. It is also central to the debate about the environment in which people gather and share information.

Pew asked a number of “big thinkers” to respond to two provocative opposing statements about the shape of the internet at the end of the decade, and indicate the one with which they most agreed.

The following are the two opposing viewpoints:

Apps dominate: In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology users’ time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people’s lives.

Web dominates: In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users’ lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny—the online tools GigaOM referred to as “the anti- Internet”—will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people’s lives.

The pro-web view beat out the pro-apps position 59 to 35 responses. The prognosticators in the report then elaborate their rationales for why the web or apps will triumph. In addition to these two camps there are a number of people who argue (quite sensibly) that apps and the web will peacefully coexist.

As the chart above indicates, comScore has found that penetration of the mobile browser and mobile apps in the US market is roughly the same.

In the Pew report, many of the people supporting a “web will prevail” position are doing so for philosophical or abstract reasons. Here’s a representative comment from Robert Cannon, Senior Counsel for internet law at the FCC:

The World Wide Web model of an open platform available to all innovators and accessible to all consumers and creators—that has a low barrier to entry, low costs of development, and does not require permission from the core network (or firm) to add a new innovation—this will continue to be the compelling model. The World Wide Web may evolve significantly, but the core design of open and scalable will make it the compelling solution

The apps-will-dominate partisans cited the improved user experience, simplicity and clarity of apps vs the mobile web. They largely avoided the “open vs. closed” discussion entirely.

Some quoted in the report argue that HTML5 will play an increasingly important role and once again make the browser the center of gravity on the mobile internet by bridging the functionality gap between mobile sites and apps.

Although the report doesn’t address this, the apps vs. web discussion is another way of having the iOS vs. Android debate.

While the apps vs. mobile web argument does matter to marketers and developers, most users don’t think the same way. Indeed, a surprising number of people couldn’t tell you the difference between an app and a mobile website anyway.

As one respondent put it, “People never cared about the Web vs. apps and devices . . . They want free stuff, entertainment, and services when they want them, and on the device they have in front of them.”

Related Topics: Apple | Channel: Mobile Marketing | Google: Android | Mobile Marketing | Statistics: Mobile Marketing | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Marcos Polanco

    Greg, that users cannot distinguish between the web and apps does not mean that it does not matter to them…it merely means they cannot distinguish one technology from the other, just as distinguishing a browser from a search engine from the web itself is beyond many. If it truly did not matter then thousands of application developers are choosing the higher cost of apps without any measurable return. This does not make sense.

  • Anonymous

    With the ongoing development of my startup business: (Under Development), I have had the opportunity to review several articles and posts on the subject of Mobile websites vs. Apps.
    Based on my research so far, I believe that for my intended market (local small businesses), the mobile website would be preferable. I base this on two main factors: (1)lower development costs, and (2) flexibility. Since apps are device-specific (i.e. iPhone, Android, etc.), a business would literally have to develop an app for each platform, vs. a mobile website which can work across all platforms.
    Great post. Thanks! Rick C. @rcl4rk:twitter 

  • Salyris Studios

    This is where a good strategy for an app needs to be planned out and mobile web via responsive design is the answer, at least for now.

  • tomelliott

    My vote would go with Web to dominate by 2020 – development of adaptive designs to a single, open source deployment method across a multitude of devices from phones, tablets, TV’s and desktops that will keep development costs down and market penetration high.

    I see Javascript, HTML 5 etc continue to bridge the gap between App and Web functionality, we already have the likes of JQuery mobile etc to create the App Style navigationUI and think and it will only be a matter of time before smartphone specific features such as camera, accelerometer etc will be accessible through web APIs. Top-end games and other niche apps however may still be native depending on hardware acceleration through the browser.

  • Michael Jalonen

    With the advance of HTML5, platforms will be less important and mobile web apps will most likely pull through.  From a software publishers perspective it is much quicker and easier and cost effective to provide applications to all platforms.  This allows the developer to invest more time on functionality and ease of use.  My two cents…

  • MADMobile

    I find it very interesting the continued discussion about Apps V Mobile Website. In our considered opinion these are two completely different products, Mobile sites are a convenience for  mobile users and every business should have one. Apps are a way of delivering cool methods of creating a loyal customer base for medium to larger businesses. Apps need to have a reason to be downloaded followed by a marketing strategy, mobile sites are there as a matter of course for your customers.

    That’s just my two penny worth.

    MADMobile @MADAPPSDIrect

  • Darryl DuCasse

    Hi there,

    I like your article. 

    As a USER I only care about functionality and user experience. Period. Downloading an app vs hitting a URL is not a significant part of the experience to me so I couldn’t care less if it is an app or a website.

    As a DEVELOPER I care about 4 things:

    * Market penetration
    * Revenue potential
    * Development costs
    * Marketing costs

    The web has the same revenue potential and more market penetration with much lower development costs. 

    So, why would I develop an app? Technical limitations!  There are things I cannot do on the web! For example, I have no access to the device’s contacts or to fined-grained geolocation on the web. Your use-cases may force you to make an app.

    As far as marketing goes the platform you choose (web or app) DOES NOT make it easier or harder to market .  Some may argue that downloading an app sounds cooler and it may be easier to create more buzz. Nonsense! Platforms don’t create buzz. Useful innovation and how you market your product does. 


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