A few weeks ago a guest speaker came to our office to talk about mobile apps. His company produced a lot of them, for pretty big brands. He knew his stuff: the team here was both impressed and engaged.
But an exchange during the following Q&A session stuck in my mind later. One of our directors asked a question: is the mobile app destined to be a transitory phenomenon, something that will fade away as mobile browsers become capable of delivering the same functionality?
The speaker was adamant that this was not the case and that mobile apps were here to stay. He felt that Google’s increasing preference for mobile browser apps over native apps was misguided and that Google were wrong on this one. Mobile browsers were so far from rivaling the functionality of native apps that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.
I was tempted to counter this point by bringing up the iPhone’s support for HTML 5 and starting a detailed discussion about in-browser capabilities. But this wasn’t the main subject of the talk and I’m in no way an expert on HTML 5, so I decided to keep my mouth shut instead.
In the weeks since the talk, however, I’ve often found myself turning this question over and over again in my head. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that mobile apps are basically doomed — or at least I hope they are.
Don’t get me wrong — they play an important role. It’s good that so many people today see phones as devices for more than just calling or texting, and the iPhone and its suite of native apps is largely to thank for this. But in the longer run, the publication and distribution model they are based on has to go.
The idea of tying software to a single hardware platform is anachronistic, uncompetitive and limits user choice. This is bad enough when you’re dealing with computers, but it’s even worse when the devices are as personal as mobile phones. People should be free to choose a different phone without needing to buy new versions of the software tools that have become integral to their lives.
Aside from user choice, there’s a more practical reason why the native app model is unsustainable. Developers won’t want to keep maintaining multiple codebases for the apps they produce, especially when there’s the option of building an equally functional in-browser app which any standards-based client can run. And although Apple might hope to render this point irrelevant by establishing monopolistic domination of the smartphone market, relieving developers of the need to consider other platforms, current research indicates that they won’t succeed.
A more fragmented smartphone OS market will increasingly compel developers to support separate codebases for Windows Mobile, RIM, Android, Symbian and the iPhone. But as mobile browsers become capable of delivering similar interactivity, serious developers will become inclined to start using the browser as the platform instead. This will be a good thing for users and the industry alike.
If I’m correct and native apps do fade away over time, we may look back on the era of pointless mobile apps as just one among many strange blips in the history of technology. But despite some early rumblings from notable developers, native mobile apps will be with us for some time yet — and, in the medium term at least, they still have an important role to play in encouraging mainstream adoption of the mobile internet.