The mobile web is dead, long live the app

The mobile web is dead, long live the app

Summary: If the mobile web is a much more logical way of building software for mobile devices, why do native apps still reign supreme?

TOPICS: Smartphones, Tablets
Mobile web RIP
The mobile web? Dead.

As a software developer, I've spent the a good chunk of the past four years in this logic loop:

Why are smartphones and tablets dependent on installable software when on the desktop we've spent many, many years trying to get rid of installable software.

It would seem that native, installable apps on mobile devices are anachronistic. But are they?


When Amazon started was just a bookstore and not the great deal more complex business that it is now. Back in 1994 all it was a (tiny) mail order company that sold books.

In a traditional mail order scenario you'd know what you wanted to buy and place a call. An operator would receive the call and tap in the order as your proxy into their order entry system. The genius move that Bezos made famous was to remove the operator and let the user key in the order entry system directly. Ecommerce was born.

Before the web, the only way to do this was to deliver a piece of software that the customer would have to install on their computer. There were a few, niche places where this happened, for example computerised banking software, but it was extremely rare.

Local PC software installation considered from both in this time period and the current time period is a pain for both the vendors of the software and the end users. The web, by acting as a technology that transmits user interface elements from a centrally controlled server to a (mostly) dumb terminal, gets around the problem of local installation.

Thus, when someone shops at Amazon they don't need to download software to do it, they just visit a URL.

And yet people, myself included, still shop on Amazon using apps rather than the mobile web, even though Amazon's mobile web capability is perfectly functional. Why?


It is harder to build good user experiences using the mobile web compared to native apps. The native toolsets provided by Apple, Google, and Microsoft are designed to showcase the devices to their maximum advantage. The web is an inherent compromise.

But, the heartache involved in building the same app multiple times for each platform should create enough pressure in the system that for the most part developers eschew native for web.

This is the thing that's never made sense to me. If native is so hard compared to mobile web, why does native exist?

I used to think that this was just vendors being customer-focused. Customers demand better user experiences and as a result vendors stepped up, made the additional investment and made native apps.

The problem with that argument is that it depends on rather a lot of businesses being commercially altruistic, and that in itself is something of an oxymoron. Amazon doesn't have to build native apps -- Amazon essentially has no competition. So why do they do it? Any why does eBay, and Facebook, and Twitter, and all the others who pour masses of development dollars into apps that no one needs?

What I'm now thinking is that the picture is much more complex than "customer focus". Like a lot of things that happen in our consumer mobile industry sector, a happy accident has snowballed.


By designing mobile platforms the way that we did, we ended up negating the major advantage that the web had. As discussed, back at the invention of the web creating locally installable software was hard.

When Apple invented the App Store and the developer tooling to go with it, they fixed the problem of local installation beforethey did anything else. From the top down, the mobile platforms are designed to deliver locally installable software. There is no such thing as a difficult, broken, incompatible, faulty, insecure installation when you're using an app store from any of the vendors. It just works.

And so this was what the users got used to, and has now snowballed into what they expect.

If all of your computing experience is based on that of using your smartphone or tablet, this is what your experience of software as a whole is. For us technologists, that's weird because to us that's not how software works, and it doesn't gel with our experience of how we went through the process of making software delivery easier.

But in the era of post-PC, that's the trend that can't be bucked. Mobile is growing so fast we have, inadvertently, redefined the whole idea of what software is. And that's why the mobile web can't win over native apps.

Making the user access what could be an app over the web is now just as weird as making a user in 2000 download an install online banking software when they could just point their web browser at their bank's servers.

It's not the native apps that's anachronistic. It's the mobile web that is.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Because you're stuck on false logic.

    "Why are smartphones and tablets dependent on installable software when on the desktop we've spent many, many years trying to get rid of installable software."

    Because you're stuck on false logic. The whole idea that the desktop is "trying to get rid of installable software" was invented by bloggers to uphold their religion that "everything is moving to the cloud," and never actually existed in the real world.

    And yeah, it's always been the case that bad installers was a solvable problem. Those who use "the cloud" as a religion deny it, but it's never been unsolvable. Sure, it's a shame that Microsoft didn't get around to fixing it until Windows 8, but taking a long time to fix it doesn't mean it's unfixable.

    As a developer, I've known since the '90s that this could be fixed. It's just that Microsoft fears breaking backwards compatibility too much, and probably feared the "monopoly" hammer if they tried to put their foot down and say "there's only one way to install desktop software anymore." (there's a lot of third party installers, they'd probably complain)

    "For us technologists, that's weird because to us that's not how software works . . ."

    LOL. Shows how much "technologists" really know about the inner workings of software. It's never been impossible.

    It's really sad that "technologists" are really this out of touch with the technologies they claim to love.
    • *standing ovation*

      As always CobraA1, you're the voice of logic and reason on these forums.

      The one thing I'll add though is that I think the installer situation was its own demise. Most people were able to figure out how to install software when the instructions were "next it to death", when installers, be it from Installshield, NSIS, Wise, Installaware, or an MSI package. After a while, the trick became "avoid the adware installers, uncheck whatever checkboxes are involved, make sure the EULA you see is not for something else, tread with caution, and hopefully you won't have a start page you don't recognize". This is what made desktop applications obnoxious to work with. Well, this, the lack of 'delta patches' (i.e. 500K update installers, rather than requiring a 250MB download every time there's a security patch), the stub installers that downloaded stuff after you've downloaded stuff, etc. Unless the issue was drivers (HP, I'm looking squarely at you), wherein you'd end up with any number of problems getting your printer to work because of the hackneyed driver stack that could only have been coded by a group of middle managers stonewalled by programmers who had enough decency to not foist such anguish on humanity. But I digress - the point, ultimately, is that the problem was solved when the installation process was considered important and customer facing. Once the installers started to be used for the gain of the software publishers, the problem started to exist.

      As for Windows 8 being the first one to have something like Synaptic or Yum that Linux has had for nearly a decade, it has indeed been an antitrust problem such that the only two options would be to allow third party repositories like Linux does (which would naturally cause the same malware problem that the installers handle now), or get the wrath of the technological elite by being the sole gatekeeper like Apple for not allowing a system similar to the one above.

      Those who can, do. Those who can't, blog.

      • Um

        What if what someone can do, is blog?
        Michael Stashuk
  • Web isn't Cloud

    I think people get this confused a lot due to resellers of nearly anything remotely hosted as "cloud" these days, including a simple static-page web site hosted by The majority of installed smart client applications do use the actual "cloud" though.
  • Mobile Web is NOT Dead

    Responsive Design and pure Web apps are THE way forward. The rest is just nostalgia and 90s client/server thinking.
    Being Guided
    • This.

      My organization was looking at developing an app, but the more we thought about it the worse an idea it seemed.

      For one thing, there was nothing we were planning for the app to do that couldn't be done via mobile web with responsive design. For another thing, to reach the broadest possible audience we were going to have to develop for three different platforms--iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. The resources required to develop and maintain apps for multiple platforms just couldn't be justified when mobile web would work fine for what we needed to do.
    • Even with Mobile Apps, Mobile Web is NOT dead

      I agree, responsive design and pure web apps are still the way forward. Since I develop web applications for state agencies, the main usage scenario is a desktop computer, but we've been developing more responsive designs so it works well on a larger variety of screen sizes/resolutions/etc.

      I also don't see local applications going away either. There are things that just run better locally, or need to be runnable when detached from a network.
  • I'm not a coder but..

    Why don't they let the browser do it all. I know a mobile browser is a different animal, but most things I need on a static PC can be taken care of with a plugin, and the rest is in the proverbial "cloud".

    Perhaps I am completely misunderstanding, and maybe mobile browsers have to be too light weight to tackle those chores.(?)
    • It's already here

      It's called firefox os.. Give it a look..
      Nick Zamparello
    • Local vs. Web hinges on Browser capabilities

      HTML 5 does provide quite a few tools to make things work in a browser, but it isn't fully implemented (not even completed as a standard yet) by browsers. Though it adds many capabilities, it still isn't quite like local native compiled code. If speed is an issue, then local native compiled code runs faster than web versions in browsers. This will likely be true for quite some time, though Virtualization has similar issues, it is now very mainstream even with those issues.

      I think we still need the HTML 5 spec to reach Recommended status before we see web apps overtaking local installs.
  • Apps save state

    Using the web on an iPad was always frustrating. Safari used to have very poor tab selection, while switching between apps had convenient gestures. Safari would regularly reload static pages already downloaded previously, causing you to lose what you were reading if this happened when you had no signal. App can store content for offline reading, which is needed when people are riding underground trains to work. Apps can also be sold in an App Store or can have IAPs.

    There is a big difference between clicking on an app to open it and typing in a URL in a browser using a crappy on screen keyboard. The locked down nature of mobile browsers also cause problems with viewing content on sites that usually require plugins. This is no a problem with an app. Many apps will also run much slower in a browser and consume more data.
  • Not so quick!

    Mobile apps are wonderful! They're normally quicker than the mobile web, contain better bells and whistles, and have fewer compatibility glitches than their web counterparts, mobile or not. There are problems, though. Firstly, in congested areas, there just isn't enough a whole lot of spare throughput available, causing the whole internet to run slowly. You'd think that this would give native apps an inherent advantage, given that the interfaces are already loaded onto the devices and you just have to transmit the pertinent data, but that just isn't the case. For whatever reason, when bandwidth or throughput is an issue, web seems to pull though more reliably than native; Instagram's website will often load even though the app can't refresh the feed. To further complicate your "simple" issue, Opera Mobile and Chrome Beta offer data compression which makes it even MORE likely that the mobile web will work, even if the native app won't.
    The other problem I can think of is storage. A native app takes up space, which due to either outright scarcity, nonsensical partitioning schemes, or lack of support for external storage, isn't abundant. Despite the vast majority of the 48GB of storage in my phone, I'm constantly trying to figure out how to free up space for the next app, or just for the existing ones which keep getting larger. This is why, assuming the ZDNet website continues to function fluidly on my device, I'll never download the app; Especially considering the experience on the mobile site is good enough.
    These sorts of things, plus the ability to code for all devices at once are why mobile web will continue to thrive for at least some time, if it ever faces extinction.
  • Apps got smaller and more agile, the web failed to evolve

    Apps in the mobile space have a huge "cool" factor. They validate a smartphone as smart. Plus apps can make buttons and functions large enough to see, instead of the terrible scrunched down, littered-with-ads and slowed-down-by-Flash standard web page views on a desktop (or mobile browser). Apps staked out their niche before companies could redesign their web sites to offer a "mobile version." And how many "mobile web pages" work as well as apps? The "standards" requirements for web browsers (interoperability, websites that can use more advanced features) hold web apps back too.

    Apps are free and don't eat up all the space on a limited-storage mobile device (it helps that even mobile devices think in terms of giga, and not mega, bytes these days). On the desktop, apps are hundreds of dollars and force you to upgrade your hard disk storage.

    Finally, the killer for companies wanting a "presence" on mobile devices, which is the future of the consumer-web space: apps can bug you to death with notifications (or sometimes even be discreetly helpful and useful). The web can't. Even if you are logged into a web page, the "push" function is limited. With apps it is limited only by the user's ability to locate the notifications page and quiet the darn thing down.

    But death to apps that add nothing to the basic web experience, while hogging up limited storage space on the smartphone or tablet. I don't need to read tech journals in their own app. FaceBook yeah, maybe some banking apps, but most web content does NOT need its own app, no matter how self-important it is.
  • Amazon App Locks You In

    At least for Amazon and other online retailers, the app has you dedicated to their store while shopping, and with tabbed browsing, checking competitors is quick and easy. Not that you can't shop prices while in their app, it is just more work.
  • Apps mean responsiveness, usability, platform intimacy

    Apps have close integration with the device OS and have access to efficient UI libraries that offer quick response. It´s more common that users customize their phone/tablet with favorite native apps than keep links to web apps, so some of the popularity/growth comes from what is most convenient.
  • marketing costs are greater than development costs

    Speaking as an app developer -- Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have created marketing bottlenecks with their app stores. If you want to deliver mobile functionality, you are just about invisible if you're not in an app store. (In fact, you're almost invisible in the app store, but at least you've got a shot.)

    On the desktop, web apps are discoverable. They aren't on the phone. It doesn't matter how much it costs to develop software -- if nobody can find it, you lose. Developers make native apps for the (small) chance to succeed as businesses.
  • Not everyone has broadband

    Not everyone has broadband with high banwidth and low latency, applications shouldnt be dependent on an internet connection, web apps hog bandwidth, web apps increase energy consumption on the infrastructure level.
  • It's not the native apps that's anachronistic. It's the mobile web that is.

    Interesting comment considering what came first and the entrenched interests of Apple to maintain a mono-cultural App-Store. The mobile-web with Cloud support is in its infancy and is now evolving rapidly. I think that Google and Microsoft appreciate the benefits but Apple will try to lock you into native-apps to preserve its revenue stream for as long as possible. They can do that by holding back mobile web-apps on their Safari Browser by creating a poor to average user experience. Their strategy will fail in the long run but they will certainly try, just as Microsoft tried, to prevent progress by promoting proprietary frameworks and was then forced to cave into HTML and open standards. Remember the dream . . . "write once, run anywhere".
  • Money grabbing scam

    Apple, Google & MS in collusion with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile etc. force "apps" down our throats so as to lock us into their respective "eco-systems" and extract money from our wallets. God forbid a company develops an agnostic mobile browser experience, but there's no money in that!
    • I think Apple have more to lose

      I agree but AFAIK Safari does not support the new Immersive mode that both IE11 & the latest version of Chrome supports. My personal experience of developing a web-app has been worst on iOS because of Safari. Obviously Google, but now also Microsoft, strongly support HTML5/CSS3/JS and associated standards based frameworks. Not sure that Apple are as motivated. Please correct me if I'm wrong.