Interesting Debate on the Decline of the Mobile Web

Scott Francis
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Linkedin vsI loved the (unintentional) debate (discussion) on the decline of the mobile web that cropped up in the days leading up to the IBM Impact conference last week.  It feels relevant because at BP3, we’re trying to deliver mobile BPM solutions for our customers.  We started by really attacking native apps.  The adoption barrier was too high, so we refocused on responsive HTML apps for BPM.  And we’re now offering both HTML apps and hybrid native-HTML apps to address the use cases we see in BPM.  In that context, this debate on the decline of the mobile web took on real immediacy for us, and for our customers.

It started with a post from Chris Dixon, a really thoughtful piece with graphs, measuring a couple of data points:

  • People now spend more time on mobile than desktop (as of last year!)
  • And, more of their mobile time is in Apps, rather than Web (from 80% to 86% over the last year)

Chris’ view is that this is a sign that the mobile web is broken and the trend is a bad sign for pretty much everyone on mobile:

  1. Apps have a rich-get-richer dynamic, which, presumably impedes innovations getting noticed
  2. Apps are heavily controlled by App store owners.  The analogy would be, if you could only shop at Amazon, what kind of toilet paper would they let you buy? Would they allow new toilet paper to enter the market? maybe, maybe not.

These are good arguments.  But there are also good counter-arguments.

Before we get to those, Fred Wilson’s blog chimed in:

My partner Brad hypothesized that it had something with the rise of native mobile apps as the dominant go to market strategy for large networks in the past four to five years. So Brian pulled out his iPhone and I pulled out my Android and we took at trip through the top 200 apps on our respective app stores. And there were mighty few venture backed businesses that were started in the past three years on those lists. It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.

Great data, great analysis.

However, here’s my main issue.  What we witnessed since the iPhone’s app store in 2008 was an explosion of innovation and copy-catting of apps in app stores – not a decline.  App stores democratized distribution in a way the software industry has rarely seen for “packaged” apps.  Anyone could post an app to the app store.  Not anyone can put their game in retail outlets nationwide, or their productivity application on shelves in bookstores.  That takes distribution.  Apple’s store (and Google’s Play, and Amazon’s etc.) solved this problem for the average app developer.

Just as cheap network access made it feel like “social” is winner-take-all for the largest players, cheap distribution makes it feel like “winner take all” in mobile.

But this doesn’t account for the mobile apps that don’t show up in the top ten lists.  The apps that are “distributed” through the App Store but don’t depend on it for discovery.  The apps that don’t make money on their own, but augment other business for the companies that produce them, or save money for them, or enhance their internal processes or education.

It doesn’t account for apps as a “window into a cloud service built on data in the cloud”.  Which is what most of the interesting apps look like (hello, Evernote, hello Dropbox).

It feels like we’re complaining about a plateau because we’re used to racing higher.  Or because a few investors have run out of investable theses in an investing space.  News flash- lots of great companies will get started and succeed without such investments. Investors will call these businesses “lifestyle” businesses, of course, but they’ll still do just fine.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber is tougher on Chris:

I think Dixon has it all wrong. We shouldn’t think of the “web” as only what renders inside a web browser. The web is HTTP, and the open Internet. What exactly are people doing with these mobile apps? Largely, using the same services, which, on the desktop, they use in a web browser. Plus, on mobile, the difference between “apps” and “the web” is easily conflated. When I’m using Tweetbot, for example, much of my time in the app is spent reading web pages rendered in a web browser. Surely that’s true of mobile Facebook users, as well. What should that count as, “app” or “web”?

I publish a website, but tens of thousands of my most loyal readers consume it using RSS apps. What should they count as, “app” or “web”?

I say: who cares? It’s all the web.

If you accept John’s definitions, he’s right.  He points out rightly that most “viewing” in Facebook and Twitter in mobile is in an app – whereas it is on a browser on the desktop.  So why is it somehow bad inside a native app?

Then he makes the point that really hits home:

The new mobile app-centric order hasn’t been a problem for Instagram, WhatsApp, Vine, Secret, or dozens of other new companies. In fact, I don’t think many of them would have even existed in a world still centered on HTML/CSS/JavaScript rendered in a browser. Instagram needed the camera, and thrived by providing scrolling performance unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen in a mobile web browser — even today, let alone when Instagram debuted in 2010. How could messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line even exist in a browser-only world?

Our new Brazos Portal is just such an example. When run in a WorkLight app, it connects to an IBM BPM server and pulls down the information to render the screen and data.  Information is communicated back via AJAX calls. But the app is really a window into your cloud services and data for BPM.  Whether those live in the cloud or on a private server really doesn’t matter.

Moreover, if the mobile web is in decline, how to reconcile this with Ben Evans’ article “In mobile, everything is still wide open” ?

  • ‘Pre-Netscape’ – the desktop internet resolved pretty quickly into ‘the web, and everything else’, and didn’t change much for 20 years. Mobile does not have that single unifying interaction model. We have apps and app stores and messaging systems and iBeacon and a lot more besides, and none of this is finished yet – we do not have resolution into one settled way to do things. Everything is still changing.
  • ‘Pre-PageRank’ – as a consequence of this complexity the door is wide open for ways for people to find and discover services and ways for companies to reach those people. After the early chaos of the web Google’s PageRank gave a single unifying vector – we do not have such a vector for mobile services. Given the much greater complexity and sophistication of the smartphone platform versus the PC web browser, we may never even get that one unified tool.
  • Identity –  a smartphone is a a social platform in a way that a PC never was – it has an address book and many other features that apps like WhatsApp can leverage. But it isn’t clear what the point of identity that ties all of these together would be – is it the PSTN number? Email address? Facebook ID? Or some shifting mess of all of these? We have Facebook and Gmail, but it’s almost as though we’re waiting for them to be invented again.

If we’re pre-Netscape, and pre-PageRank, and pre-Identity… then how is mobile in decline, rather than just pausing for the next round of innovation, and possibly disruption?

 

 

 

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