Apps and the Mobile Web: Or vs. And

Apple has made much of its apps store's first anniversary. It now features 65,000 apps, with more than 1.5 billion downloads. Those numbers are very impressive and far ahead of competitors. However Skyhook Wireless discovered that a percentage of those 65,000 apps are so-called "bulk apps" or multiple applications produced by a single developer or publisher that use a template and simply substitute different data or content.

From Skyhook's most recent LBS apps report:

One important discovery made in the Apple App Store was the existence of “Bulk Apps,” local search or travel apps that are released in mass by a single author. These apps make up a large portion of the Apple store, and suggest an interesting trend in app marketing . . .

For example, Molinker Inc. sells over 850 travel apps based on the same template, but switches out content based on specific locations, e.g. Travel to Paris or Travel to Costa Rica. Around 1/3 of Apple LBS apps are mass‐produced local search or travel guide apps. View more details about Bulk App producers in the table at the right.

Bulk LBS Apps Developers

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Source: Skyhook Wireless

I spoke with Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan and Kate Imbach, Director of Marketing and Developer Programs. They said their latest report was taken a little out of context in some of the more inflammatory articles that tried to use it to suggest that Apple was somehow misrepresenting the scope or extent of the apps store. 

An interesting, related issue being debated today online comes out of comments made yesterday at the MobileBeat conference by Google's Vic Gundotra, who has reiterated Google's position that the future of mobile lies in the browser and not native (smartphone) apps, like those for Android or the iPhone. This is a position that Gundotra has articulated before, most recently at Google's developer conference I/O. Summarizing Gundotra's remarks at MobileBeat, the Financial Times reported this morning:

[Gundotra] claimed that even Google was not rich enough to support all of the different mobile platforms from Apple’s AppStore to those of the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android and the many variations of the Nokia platform.

“What we clearly see happening is a move to incredibly powerful browsers,” he said.

“Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning.

“We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”

Gundotra said something quite similar at I/O: the complexity, time and cost of developing native apps for multiple platforms combined with the power of HTML5 in the browser would cause people to migrate to Web apps development. This position is entirely consistent with the logic and momentum of where Google is headed more broadly: "browser as development platform, Chrome OS, the cloud, access content from any device" and so on.

Wired quotes a number of pundits who disagree with that native smartphone apps will disappear. My view is similar but based on a range of factors. First, there are three categories of experiences in mobile (for smartphones):

  • Native application (e.g., Urbanspoon)
  • Smartphone/iPhone optimized mobile Web site (e.g., Gmail, Google Calendar, MapQuest)
  • PC site rendered on a mobile brower

Google sees itself playing in the second category, although it has greatly benefitted from its native app on the iPhone. The company also wouldn't deny the short term strategic importance of apps for the success of the Android platform. However in my view it is true that Android is more about mobile Web than apps on balance.

Mobile Web and native apps will co-exist probably for the foreseeable future. I believe this because:

  • Developers generally can't make money off Web apps
  • Native apps offer a better user experience overall and the range of things that can be done in native apps is more extensive and compelling than on the mobile Internet
  • Apple's success has established the primacy of the app and the other major smartphone platforms and several carriers are copying the apps store concept
  • Apple has shown that people will download and pay for software on their mobile devices if the experience is easy and intuitive. This will cause more development and investment in the apps space; more than $100 million has been invested to date in apps companies essentially. 
  • A one-size fits all approach doesn't work in mobile in the same way it might work for the PC
  • Vendors such as Rhomobile and its competitors are addressing the problem of writing for multiple smartphone platforms and we will soon have true "write once" tools and products. Flash could also help address the problem too. 

Gundotra might feel that his remarks and position are being exaggerated for the sake of creating drama or controversy. And he's right that it's easier to develop for a rich browser environment than five smartphone platforms.

Many people may not remember that Google's announcement of Android was intended to simplify the market by being a standard of sorts or a platform that could develop critical mass because it was open source. That critical mass could then simplify the world for mobile developers. As it has turned out Apple is the platform that mobile app developers are most focused on (so far) because of iPhone usage patterns and device critical mass (40 million iPod/iPhone devices).

Android and RIM are also very important. It remains to be seen whether the Pre develops a large ecosystem. Clearly Microsoft already has a large developer ecosystem for WinMo; it now has to make that more accessible to consumers. The jury is also still out on Ovi. 

Stepping back it's not really going to be mobile apps vs mobile Web. It's not really going to be "or" it's more like "and."