Do Mobile Users Really Prefer the Browser?

EMarketer has today written up the findings of an August survey conducted by Keynote Services and funded by Adobe. The "sexy" headline is "Mobile Users Prefer Browsers over Apps." The online survey had 1,200 responses from US adults. It's pretty broad and asked lots of questions about mobile user behavior and attitudes. There's a lot of material in there. But I'll address the narrow question raised in the eMarketer post: browser vs. apps preferences. 

Asserting the primacy of the browser vs. apps is part of Adobe's "political" agenda in the market. In the app world (notwithstanding Air) Adobe is less relevant. I'm not going to say the survey was biased going in or unethical. But I think if we drill down a bit we find that there's some "spin" going on and the answer to the question "browser vs apps" is a bit more complicated than the headline suggests. 

The related report from Adobe says "a majority [of respondents] own browser-enabled smartphones," but it doesn't specify the number of smartphones vs. non-smartphones. Here's the smartphone distribution among the survey respondents: 

Screen shot 2010-10-27 at 10.19.10 AM

The report offers the following commentary (and spin) about why browsers are preferred according to the survey findings:

We believe consumers do not prefer apps over browsers to access content partly because they like the convenience of simply typing their queries and destinations right into the browser, compared to frequently searching for applications, then downloading them from an app store. Users are also transferring their desktop behavior to the mobile browsing and search environment, which for many devices, mirror the familiar desktop experience. Moreover, most consumers have a limited appetite for the number of applications they are willing to download and maintain on their devices.

However the survey's data are more nuanced. The report says the following verbatim: 

Respondents generally favor the browser experience over downloadable mobile apps, except when it comes to games, social media, maps and music. Two-thirds say they prefer the mobile web over downloadable mobile apps for accessing Consumer Products/Shopping and Media & Entertainment content . . .

A majority of respondents prefer apps for downloading games (61%), consuming music (55%) and social networking (54%). The differences in user preference for using apps or browsers to access maps were not statistically significant . . .

The majority of respondents say they use browsers as their entry point to access content, but Android users are nearly split in their usage of browsers and apps to access Media & Entertainment and Consumer Products/Shopping content for the first time. Additionally, all user groups except Windows Mobile and Blackberry say they prefer applications over browsers for accessing maps.

While iPhone and Android users generally prefer using browsers to access content in all the categories measured, as a group, they tend to favor apps for shopping at a higher rate compared to their peers.

(Emphasis added)

My comments: 

There's a fundamental challenge around app discovery on both the iTunes store and Android market. This is one reason that people are using browsers, because they may be unaware of apps in some contexts. Browsers are very useful but many publishers and merchants don't have mobile optimized websites and so the user experience often breaks down there. Good apps beat the user experience of a browser-based experience in a large majority of cases.

The discussion above about Android users and their equal preferences for apps and browsers is also telling:

Android users are nearly split in their usage of browsers and apps to access Media & Entertainment and Consumer Products/Shopping content for the first time. Additionally, all user groups except Windows Mobile and Blackberry say they prefer applications over browsers for accessing maps.

(Emphasis added) 

Media and Shopping are the two categories in which the report says "two-thirds say they prefer the mobile web over downloadable mobile apps." Thus in the strongest browser categories Android users are evenly split between apps and browsers "for the first time." This language is interesting because it implies prior survey results not discussed here. It also implies that in the past the browser was more favored among Android users but the trend is toward apps or at least away from a heavier browser bias. 

The truth is that apps and browsers will co-exist into the foreseeable future. They each serve different purposes. SMS provides the broadest mobile audience reach, followed by the browser and then apps. Mobile apps are certainly not the right approach for marketers in all situations -- and bad apps can produce a bad user experience. But it's simply not correct to make the blanket generalization that "mobile users prefer the browser over apps." 

There are layers of nuance, based on the handset type and user population, the app and category in question. There are things that can be done (right now) in apps that can't be done through the mobile browser, even with HTML5. Side by side a good shopping app is going to beat a browser based shopping experience. The same is true for news, maps and local content -- really content across the board. 

It would have been interesting for the survey to compare specific apps and browser-based experiences side-by-side and segment answers by user demographics and device ownership. Then we'd truly have a sense whether browsers or apps were preferred. But I don't think the sponsor of the survey was interested in that kind of detail.