The Future is the Mobile Web (not the Mobile App)

The Mobile Internet has finally risen to significance. Mobile applications have been hailed as the harbinger of progress for the mobile ecosystem and there are a few amazing applications available. There is however little attention on the mobile web. We want to put the mobile web and applications in context and shed light on critical differences that will help you form a healthy mobile strategy. The availability of hundreds of thousands of apps is great, but there are billions of Web pages. Which matters more?

Hyperlinks create a usable and connected experience.
Tim Berners Lee created hyperlinks to serve as a thread to connect the Web. URLs allow anybody to link to anyone. Google turned those hyperlinks into currency.  Search engines crawl the Web and follow hyperlinks in those documents to create relationships between content.  Enter mobile applications.  An overlooked limitation of applications is that they do not accept incoming links, there is no URL to open a certain piece of content in your newspaper or Facebook app. Without hyperlinks these apps are not first-class Web citizens and as such lead an isolated existence. Real World Scenario: You Google something and find an interesting piece in the New York Times. When you open the link it will open the New York Times Site and not the New York Times app even if you have it installed. Therefore, you must have a mobile Web site even for those users that have your app installed and your user is confronted with two interfaces for the same content.

Platform neutrality is a step towards rational product development.
HTML was conceived as a platform-neutral way to deliver content. Web site resources such as images, javascript and dynamic side code live on Web servers. Deployment of these resources means simply updating/copying them. This applies to mobile Web sites as well. Enter mobile applications. Mobile applications are platform specific structures that only work on supported devices and live on the device. The main platforms are iPhone OS, Android OS, Web OS, Symbian and RIM OS. Many new OS are coming, just look at the recent announcements. Its not just the sheer amount of all those platforms but the different versions of them. This fragmentation is just starting. If you want to be present on all platforms you need to have a pool of developers available that master all those platforms and their different versions. If the app is dependent on Web services you need to ensure that you maintain compatibility with all versions of your app out there. Or, if the OS updates, you need to ensure that your apps are forward compatible. Keep in mind that users update their apps all the time. Look at a couple of iPhones — there is always a floating number above the App Store Icon that indicates how many apps should be updated. If you compare that to relatively simple way of of updating Web sites you look into a complex, time intensive and expensive maintenance process.

Application stores are the new walled gardens.

Most applications are published through walled application stores. The maintainers reserve the right to refuse your app for ethical and technical reasons. To be clear, there is content that should not be available on the Internet, but censoring is not a trivial matter and is a dream come true for institutions that want to shutout competition and uncomfortable voices.  Imagine going through an approval process to have your Web sites indexed by a search engine. There is no institution that could provide the scale of auditing the billions of Web pages. As for technical reasons there is no way around an application review process since apps can seriously harm your phone. Mobile viruses are not for the faint of heart. 

Reality check.
When your idea needs fast graphics, audio processing, access the camera or interaction with the address book you most likely need an application. For most ideas, however, there is no need to develop an app.  Modern mobile browsers are constantly improving and allow local data storage, geolocation access, full Web standards support and multitouch user interfaces. There is a standard recipe all top mobile sites follow. Create a basic mobile Web site that will render well on almost any phone and create versions that use special features on platforms that you deem necessary. Mobile Web sites fully integrate into the vast Web and do not lead the isolated existence of an application. Mobile applications are a step backwards into the dark ages of platform dependency that the Web overcame and make it more difficult for your content to flow. Choose wisely.