Browser makers not meeting mobile requirements

Trapped in the desktop era, browsers still are not optimised for wireless and mobile environments, giving smaller makers an opportunity to catch up.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Amid the advent of mobile apps, browsers have been left by the wayside and unable to meet the needs of mobile consumers, offering an opportunity for smaller players to catch up.

Any business looking to extend their reach to all customers would need to be able to engage them across multiple channels, said Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. This should encompass messaging, web, app, and any other channel or device the customer chose to use, he said in an e-mail interview.

Commenting on whether web browsers were still relevant today in an era where users had access to information via mobile and messaging apps, Schalder said while aggregators such as WeChat were reaching mass audience, these "do not cover the entire waterfront of services, not even in China".

"The web is far from dead. In fact, in most countries, it is still by far the most broadly available and best 'owned' channel," he said, noting that the mobile web, for instance, had a much wider reach than any mobile app globally.

Guillermo Escofet, Ovum's principal analyst for digital media, concurred. He acknowledged that apps were hogging an increasing amount of mobile users' time, taking up more than 90 percent of those in the US, for example. However, the average smartphone user still visited more websites per month than they did apps, Escofet told ZDNet. He noted, though, that these tended to be "fleeting, exploratory visits".

He added that mobile consumers in mature markets were downloading and using fewer apps than they used to, but were spending more time on app that they did use.

According to Schalder, websites and browser makers had been slow to meet the needs of mobile consumers. "Browsers are still trapped in a desktop era [and are] not optimised for wireless networks, small devices, or mobile scenarios," the Forrester analyst said.

This, though, could change with the push to adopt browser standards, collectively called progressive web apps, led by Google, he said, adding that others such as Opera and Microsoft had joined the fray. These aimed to improve mobile web experiences and enable developers to build more app-like web experiences. Apple, however, had yet to adopt these standards, he noted.

"For smaller browser makers, there is little chance they can win significant share because they don't control mobile devices, but they can provide a meaningful alternative by leading the market on the adoption of these new progressive web app technologies," Schalder said.

Escofet added that browsers remained relevant due to search and discovery as well as access to content and services that users did not want to download in the form of apps, such as adult content and transient or one-off services.

In addition, social and messaging apps were becoming major content and e-commerce platforms, giving greater emphasis to instant apps such as cloud-based HTML5 apps, he said. This, he added, could put focus back on browsers.

"There could come a time when browsers make a big comeback in the mobile space, if the likes of Facebook or WeChat decide to abandon native apps to go back to the browser," the Ovum analyst said.

Mozilla, for one, was turning up its focus on mobile as part of its new growth strategy, which encompassed a lineup of mobile releases planned for this year, said Mozilla CMO Jascha Kaykas-Wolff.

Since its launch in December 2012, Firefox Mobile for Android clocked more than 175 million installations and supported more than 80 languages. Plans now were underway to release an Android version of Firefox Focus, following the launch of Firefox Focus for iOS in November 2016. The mobile web browser was touted to block ad trackers by default and allow users to easily remove browsing history, including passwords and cookies.

Mozilla said the growing popularity of smartphones and mobile Web underscored the need to focus on user privacy and security, and provide private browsing.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff said future enhancements were focused on making Firefox faster, more secured and reliable, and better in terms of online user experience. He also pointed to efforts in new areas such as augment reality and speech recognition, and bringing such capabilities offline.

Noting that most of such offerings currently ran on cloud and mobile platforms, he said Mozilla was exploring technology to deliver these services that were not locked to a specific platform and that could operate without the need for full internet access. These would be especially relevant in some Asia-Pacific markets where online access or high bandwidth might not be readily available, he noted.

According to Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Mozilla had more than 300 million users globally, but declined to say how many were in Asia-Pacific. He also would not reveal what percentage of the company's revenue was driven out of the region.

Mozilla operated an office in Taiwan, which had some 70 employees and was the largest outside of its domestic US market, he said.

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