Why I’m not worried about the mobile web

The analytics firm Flurry last week reported that mobile app usage in the U.S. was higher than ever in the first quarter of 2014, accounting for 86 percent of the average mobile user’s time, or two hours and 19 minutes per day. The mobile web accounted for just 14 percent of the average user’s time spent on mobile (22 minutes per day), down from 20 percent during the first quarter of 2013.

Flurry’s data isn’t surprising, but the report generated some incendiary headlines. Forbes shouted that the mobile browser is dead, Business Insider echoed that claim, and BuzzFeed concluded that no one uses the mobile web anymore. Perhaps the most thought-provoking piece was from entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Chris Dixon, who said the “worrisome trend” is likely to relegate the web to a “niche product” used only for a few specific tasks. Citing ComScore data indicating mobile web traffic recently surpassed desktop traffic, Dixon wrote that increasing app usage will shackle innovation in the long term because A) apps “have a get-rich-quick dynamic” that rewards the status quo, and B) Apple and Google dominate the market and essentially dictate terms while they charge developers 30 percent of revenues.

Dixon makes some great points, and his brief post is well worth a read. But there are a few important reasons I disagree with his conclusion:

  • Mobile apps often overlap with the mobile web. As John Gruber wrote in response to Dixon’s piece, the mobile internet isn’t limited to content accessed directly through a browser. (Yes, I know that the terms “web” and “internet” aren’t synonymous, but they may as well be in this conversation.) Native apps help developers create an optimal user experience, but they don’t necessarily compete with the web because they often use links to direct users to web pages rendered in a mobile browser. So popular native apps like Facebook and Twitter complement the web, while gaming – which accounts for the largest portion of time spent on Android and iOS devices at 32 percent, according to Flurry – would almost never be done in a browser in the first place. So the two platforms often aren’t competitive.
  • The mobile web experience still stinks. Building a mobile-friendly site is a costly proposition, which helps explain why one recent study found that only 59 of the Fortune 100 companies operate a mobile-optimized website. Dixon argues that companies will increasingly invest in the development of native apps as the user experience on the mobile web “further deteriorates,” but I disagree. Responsive web design will continue to help developers build mobile-friendly sites with minimal costs, and businesses will learn how to build better mobile sites as traffic on the mobile web continues to ramp up. It has taken years for developers and designers to learn how to build effective sites for PCs, so it’s no surprise that the learning curve for mobile is even steeper.
  • Web-friendly technologies will continue to improve. Mobile networks will get faster, browsers will become more efficient, batteries will become more powerful, and HTML5 will evolve. Those improvements won’t occur overnight, of course, but they will gradually enable developers to build web-based apps that can be accessed by a wide variety of smartphones, eventually eliminating the need (for some developers) to create versions of their apps for each operating system.

Native apps deliver a superior user experience with minimal power consumption and far lower latency than the web can, so they may always be a better vehicle for games and other immersive, sophisticated offerings. But traffic on the mobile web will ramp up as the experience improves and as overall data consumption increases. This isn’t a black-and-white battle, as I wrote a few years ago, and neither native nor the web will “win.”