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February 07, 2011

The Uncertain Future of Apps

February 07, 2011

In the past two years Apps have infiltrated our lives. Every smart phone device/OS (iPhone, Android, Blackberry) has an App store. It has become a huge cash cow for all involved from the makers of hit Apps (hello Angry Birds!) to the device makers (Apple's App Store). It's no surprise the carriers are trying to get into the game as well.

So when a Austin web shop, Clarus, declared its intentions to switch to an app only business model (they are still looking to do Web apps) I began to wonder whether we were missing the App boat here at SmallBox. Are Apps the future or are they an "inbetweener" product like VHS?

Let's break it down.

App Advantages:

Experience. Apps have a much richer, and often much faster, user experience since they are running software on a local OS (Operating System).

Connectivity. Apps work when you are offline, for the most part, so you don't have to rely solely on your spotty reception (thanks AT&T!).

Mobile Browsers Suck. Modern browsers are relatively primitive compared to mobile Operating Systems. Since Apple and others don't support Flash this is especially the case with current mobile browsers. Gaming apps in particular have no chance going the browser route without Flash. Apple and others claim that Flash is a memory/battery hog, sure, but I think the real reason is...

Money. There is a lot of money in the App game. Apple is making a killing. Also, the incentive of a big payday draws a lot of quality App developers into the market. So Apple and App developers don't really want to have the apps running for free in a Web browser. The App Stores make a lot of people a lot of money.

App Disadvantages:

Cost: users don't like paying for things. I understand the argument that money makes better apps but looking at what has happened to the music industry I wouldn't place my bet on the paid medium (ie CDs, another soon to be "inbetweener" product). If the same App experience was available via a mobile browser I would expect to see users start moving to free option.

Hassle. It takes time to find and download apps, it's a pain. If I'm in a new city and want to find out about the local music scene I don't want to mess around with downloading an App created by a local music zine. I want to have that experience via a Google search then landing on a mobile optimized site.

Operating Systems. There are currently three main mobile Operating Systems- Apple (iPhone/iPod and iPad), Blackberry and Android (Google). There may be more. Web browsers have some variation between them but not as much as different OSs.


Apps are "inbetweeners". As mobile browsers improve, increases in coverage & speed from carriers as well as more Web developers working with HTML 5 we will begin seeing increasingly rich mobile Web Apps. I think you can see a model for this with 37 Signals recent move to go the Web App route over building Apps for each mobile device Operating System. I won't be surprised if mobile Apps even end up having a store or being included in existing App stores. Regardless, I see the future of Apps in better browsers not more mobile OSs. So investing in learning those platforms doesn't look like a good long term strategy for us.

Note: this blog inspired by a great LinkedIn Group conversation initiated by Mike Seidel. Thanks Mike!

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