Apps versus the mobile web: a 2015 update

Since the advent of the smartphone and the tablet, I’ve been kept on my toes as a web designer.

Five or so years back, there were a slew of articles that essentially argued that so pervasive and powerful was the ‘app’, that the relevance of the traditional web on mobile devices would dwindle too little and I would be out of a job.

Frightening stuff for someone staring at the schooling costs of two young boys! I would have to retrain as an app developer and rid myself of years of useless web design experience.

Except the Armageddon never came.

I mean sure, the app development market is a huge one and one that continues to grow and prosper. Damn, even I am now involved in app development for clients, where an app makes sense to the business requirement.

But so too is the mobile web. The sort of websites I design.

Kid’s schooling safe, possibility of a small runabout when I retire.

Come late 2014 however and the articles about the march of apps returned, supported by extraordinary numbers showing that time in apps dwarfs time on mobile websites.

Essentially, rather than turning to Safari or Chrome, we’re opening an app and spending our time there.

Oh dear.


Except the numbers aren’t quite right

Fact: we spend only 14% of our time on our smartphones playing around in our browsers: Chrome, Safari and IE for those on Windows Phone.

Conversely, 86% of our time if spent in apps. A crushing win to apps, a crushing loss to the web.

Except that according to an article I read, if you combine gaming, Facebook and Social Messaging, these three app categories dominate 60% of total time on phone. In other terms, unless your app is in these three categories of apps, the total pool of apps takes up just 26% of time on mobile.

Not quite the crushing win.

What is far more interesting, is that outside of gaming, of the top 10 apps on mobile today, Facebook owns the four biggest.

  1. Facebook Messenger
  2. Facebook
  3. WhatsApp Messenger
  4. Instagram

Which means that apps are only dominating mobile because of mobile gaming and ‘the importance of Facebook’. Not much else.


My argument is not about apps but about the type of apps that should be built

Most of us have long understood the advantages that apps have.

They are native, they are fast and they can access parts of the phone that a mobile website cannot.

Which lends itself to games and social/messaging apps.

However if your app doesn’t need specific access to the phone, then your app probably doesn’t need to be an app. If anything, the statistics hint to this.

The mobile web continues to improve and continues to offer an incredible cost and compatibility benefit over native apps. Moreover, mobile websites can be linked to, especially from social media, something apps achieve.

Which means that for applications such as news and publishing websites, there is not only no need for an app, though conclusive downsides to operating an app.

None of this will be a revelation to those in the know and that is why it has become rare to hear from clients asking for app; they also realise that it is not the right approach.

The real reason for the blog was to point out the numbers and that:

  1. The mobile web is very real.
  2. Facebook are the kings!