The Return Of The Web App
As the battle raged on over Apple's stance on Adobe Flash, Steve Jobs dropped at least one little kernel of truth in his "Thoughts on Flash" missive last week. I won't get into who is more proprietary than whom (but, really, what Cupertino corporate-speak hashish is that guy smoking?). But in making the case for Apple's supposed open spirit (no, really, where does one score stuff like that?) Jobs points to Apple's development of the WebKit that now drives many mobile sites on iPhone, Android, Palm, Nokia and (soon) BlackBerry smart phone. In fact, some of us recall when Apple itself couldn't say enough about the "Web app" platform -- before it drank its own mobile app Kool-Ade. Indeed, a number of Jobs' own recent moves with the iPhone 4.0 and iAd platform could make publishers and advertisers look again at the "open" platform Apple helped proliferate and then left behind.
The role of the Web app has not been taken up in this big debate, but it could become a bigger deal if the iAd proves controversial. At this early stage, it is unclear to some what kind of third-party analytics Apple really is going to allow as the company rolls out OS 4.0 and injects itself into the mobile ad game.
Some publishers and the ad networks might find more flexibility outside of the App Store. How fortuitous that Global Intelligence Alliance just released a fascinating new white paper that predicts Web apps will increase their share of developer attention and may probe a superior platform for some kinds of publishing models. "Businesses that are considering subscription-based services over multiple devices, such as tablets and smart phones, are likely to choose Web apps over native ones," says Lie Luo, Lead Consultant for Mobile and Wireless, GIA. For news, weather, sports, healthcare and other subscription fare, Luo says "Web apps allow them to engage and track their subscribers more effectively than native apps."
The full white paper is available at the GIA site.
By 2013, the Web app environment should have much of the functionality of native apps today by being able to hook more directly into on-board cameras, contacts, messaging, calendars and files, GIA contends. And on the users' side, as comfort with the mobile Web increases, the line between native apps and Web apps will blur even further. "Heavier" apps like games and pay-per-download programs from smaller publishers likely will continue to prefer the native app route. But in surveying 87 developers, publishers and service providers across more than 20 content categories, GIA found that right now 44% of the group prefer native apps and 22% prefer Web apps, while 35% like and use both interfaces. The mind share between native and Web apps evens considerably among respondents coming from larger publishers/developers who are relying more heavily on subscription or mobile ad models. GIA believes that the native app mind-share will decrease from 44% now to 24% in 2013.
The impetus for Web app development goes to the core of large publisher needs, control over distribution and development costs across platforms. Obviously, Web apps release a publisher from the third-party approval process and the bother of porting across a fragmented smart phone OS universe.
While the data is still scant for comparisons, and all mobile habits are evolving, there are some patterns to native vs. Web app use. Thirty percent of respondents reported that the native apps generated 100% or more usage than Web apps. On the other hand, only 23% of native apps developers reported steadily growing usage since download. Activity for most native apps tends to peak early. On Web apps, however, 33% reported increased usage over time.
When it comes to click-through rates on ads, native apps have an advantage over Web apps, but it varies by content type. Sports apps, for instance report higher CTRs on Web app ads, while travel and local categories see better CTRs on the app side. And when it comes to site engagement, the native apps still have big advantages over Web apps, with 30% reporting much greater session times on the native app.
But when it comes to the cost, speed and ease of development, Web apps have it all over native apps. And many publishers are doing this development in-house. The time and cost of builds and maintenance are fractions of the same processes on native apps.
For all of these pros and cons, GIA found that the largest share of their respondents (30%) expected to put equal focus on Web app and native app development going forward. The standardization on HTML5 rich media for mobile browsers and the better hooks into on-board smart phone capabilities will be key drivers. Another key consideration for publishers will be the proliferation of connected devices that could all require discrete app builds: connected TVs, game consoles, tablets and connected CE tools like the Sony Dash and in-car screens. As hardware fragments, most major publishing brands will be looking for a better way to address and update functionality on all of them at once.
And how about sheer reach for marketers? I have no doubt that an iAd on my iPhone and iPad will be incredibly cool and impactful. But how about if a little-less-rich rich-media ad could run all day on my m.cnn.com Web app across iPhone/iPad Safari browser, LG TV, in-car entertainment system, connected alarm clock, and Playstation 4?
Why would you want an ad that simply "took over an app" when you can have a promotion that takes over my day?