App Creep and the Case for the Mobile Browser

“Boy, you have a lot of apps,” my wife said after looking at my iPhone the other night. I told her I was waiting till I reached 100, at which point I planned to delete many of them. But it turned out I was already at 137. My iPhone was suffering an acute case of app creep.

By app creep, I mean the collecting (and then forgetting) of software programs. It isn’t new. But on mobile phones, the less popular apps are more visible, even a nuisance –- you frequently flip past pages of them searching for the one you need. It’s less of a problem on laptops and desktops, in part, because of the centrality of the web browsers on those devices. On a smartphone, I use a browser well less than a quarter of the time. But sooner than later, that will change, because as more and more companies offer services on the mobile web, the mobile browser will play a bigger role. Thanks to the advent of HTML5, browsers and  apps will learn to live with each other.

In the meantime, while there may be 200,000 apps for the iPhone and 50,000 for Android phones, but iPhone users have on average just 37 apps installed and Android owners, 22, according to the latest figures from Nielsen. Of course, not all apps connect users to the web, but many of those that don’t contain content that can easily be found online.

Eventually, a spot on the home screens of smartphones will become like beachfront property in Monte Carlo –- highly coveted real estate. Most non-elite developers will find it easier to reach a mobile audience through the browser. But for now, the lion’s share of them are ignoring the browser in favor of native apps, which -– unless they’re a featured or best-selling app in an app store -– often languish in obscurity.

And yet, as Kevin Tofel pointed out a few months ago, mobile apps “are bite-sized, functional chunks of the mobile web” that work so well he has “yet to find a mobile web experience exceeding that of a mobile application.”

It’s helping that, increasingly, mobile browsers are growing more sophisticated. When Apple launched the iPhone, they were still relatively primitive –- merely desktop browsers writ small. But recently HTML5 has been changing that, allowing for some key features commonly found in native apps, such as geolocation APIs, offline storage and more.

Still, HTML5 won’t be fully ratified as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium until later this year at the earliest. And in the meantime, mobile browsers are incrementally rolling out HTML5 feature compatibility. Visiting on a iPhone Safari browser rates it 125 out of 300, on an Android 2.2 (Froyo), 176 and Opera Mini, just 22 (although Opera plans to change this in coming months).

Meanwhile, some companies are starting to tailor web sites for mobile browsers. It took me 25 seconds to type Facebook’s URL into my iPhone’s Safari browser (21 when I used a bookmark). It took me 20 seconds to find the Facebook app and post the same update. I couldn’t post a photo through the browser, and I couldn’t update my profile information. But the basic functions of posting and reading updates are already similar to what the Facebook app provides.

Beyond technology, there is another barrier that mobile browsers will have to overcome: the perception that native apps are the entry point for the web on mobile phones. It’s a message that Apple has driven home relentlessly with its iPhone and iPad TV commercials. But as app creep afflicts those devices and as browser usability improves, consumers may warm up to their browsers more.

Developers have also gravitated to native apps, partly to follow consumer demand and partly because, as Kevin noted, the experience has so far been superior. But developing web apps for a mobile browser has strong advantages in the long term -– among them, avoiding both the need to write for and support multiple OS platforms and the sometimes onerous approval requirements of app stores.

So contrary to what some are predicting will be a stronger movement toward native apps and a marginalization of the browser in the age of the mobile web, I see something different: an eventual balancing out. Native apps will always be on mobile phones, but as a kind of premier gallery of a person’s most beloved ones. Sooner than later, most companies seeking our attention will do so through a browser.

Image courtesy of Flickr user linusil