Web vs. Apps: Will Android Fragmentation Advance HTML5?

The debate over whether the browser or apps will win in mobile is in my mind very tired already. Yet people love to keep having it on blogs and in tech news articles. On some level it's a surrogate or proxy for the Google/Android vs. Apple meme that people also love to discuss endlessly.

I will admit that it is a practical, meaningful conversation from a brand or marketer point of view. Should you invest in an app or not? The answer is often still not obvious. However it's abundantly clear that everyone needs a mobile-optimized site rather than relying on a conventional PC website that can be viewed with a smartphone browser. Mobile ads that dump users into marketers' PC sites are almost entirely worthless. 

It's fairly clear to me that over time the dominant type of mobile presence will be an HTML5 "web app." This will become the default mobile site for those that can sink resources into the mobile Web. Mobile sites offer potentially much greater reach than apps but apps will continue to offer a better experience (e.g., games) and will be strategic for many companies and publishers though by no means essential for most.

There are surveys that argue users prefer mobile websites to apps; however, closer scrutiny of results shows a more mixed picture with the trend toward a preference for apps in key categories. 

Regardless of the rise of "web apps," native smartphone apps aren't going away and have become like super-bookmarks -- often "primary" sources that users will consult before turning to the browser. In fact apps have expanded to the PC (Google and Apple). What you may see however is the development of a two-tiered system: native apps for two or three platforms and reliance upon HTML5 for "the rest." 

Interestingly the developer of the wildly successful Angry Birds game just sounded off, among other things, on the iPhone vs. Android:

Apple will be the number one platform for a long time from a developer perspective, they have gotten so many things right. And they know what they are doing and they call the shots. Android is growing, but it’s also growing complexity at the same time. Device fragmentation not the issue, but rather the fragmentation of the ecosystem. So many different shops, so many different models. The carriers messing with the experience again. Open but not really open, a very Google centric ecosystem. And paid content just doesn’t work on Android.

Google had previously argued that platform and OS fragmentation would drive mobile Web adoption by publishers vs. native apps. And Google has developed a range of HTML5 apps accordingly. While that logic is sound in the abstract it's not really playing out so far. Most publishers of any size are developing iPhone and Android apps and to a lesser degree apps for other OS platforms (RIM, Windows, Palm, Nokia).

Ironically if Android becomes the second largest smartphone OS in the world, as predicted, it may be fragmentation within the Android ecosystem, along the lines suggested by Angry Birds' developer, that causes marketers and publishers to focus on and embrace Web apps vs. native (Android) apps. It may be Google helping to fulfill its own prophecy.