As it was said in Home For the Holidays, “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one.” That couldn’t be more true in the mobile web versus native app debate. Yet there should be no real debate – both tools suit different tasks best. I see two important elements missing from the current discussion though; what should the mobile web be used for, and what is the role of the web browser in a mobile world.
The mobile web focuses on what it does best, content. That’s where it’s “winning”. Everything else should be an app.
Many think that because the mobile web isn’t winning in all categories, such as time spent, that it must be dying. Yet players in the mobile web shouldn’t be competing with games like Angry Birds or productivity apps like Evernote. The technology for gaming isn’t there and it doesn’t take advantage of what the mobile web does best – deliver content. Just look at the chart below comparing time spent for specific categories – the mobile web is 52% bigger than apps for content. That doesn’t take into account in-app browsing, which gets a lot closer to 2x larger. There’s a reason that most “magazine replica” apps have failed, they didn’t actually need a native app to win.
So, why is the mobile web blowing out the content category? Hyperlinks.
The web is driven by hyperlinks; every Google search, Facebook share, or email with a webpage opens up a hyperlink. Their omnipresence in our lives ensures that the web isn’t going away soon. Some may say that deep linking is the answer on mobile, yet most deep links require that the app of a content publisher be installed already. Given that, it only applies to a small percent – the most loyal readers. Truth be told, most links aren’t chosen by individuals based upon publisher preference but by whatever looks good in their feed or returns in the first page of a search. Most readers visit new content creators every month and installing every app would create a massive junk drawer on their device. Links opening to the mobile web work great – they’re the backbone of services like Google and Facebook – while opening content in a frictionless way.
What’s interesting is that a big change is going on from Safari being the main web browser to social apps being the main web browser. Right now, in-app traffic accounts for 39% of all mobile-web browsing on iOS according to data we’ve seen at Onswipe/Beanstock. That’s a huge shift and it signifies something profound – apps are actually driving usage of the web. The more usage that Facebook and Twitter get, the more usage that the web gets.
About five years ago, social started driving link-focused traffic the same way as search. At the same time, mobile started to rise and in 2014, we now live in a world where most social networks run their own apps – the Twitter app, the Facebook app, the Pinterest app, etc. “The web” on mobile has shifted from being consumed primarily inside the web browser to being consumed inside of apps. The web browser like Safari or Chrome is for search-driven traffic and Facebook and Twitter are for social-driven traffic. One could think of the Facebook app, for example, as its own web browser that uses your friends to decide what links to open versus the algorithms of yore. We’re no longer just consuming “the web” in a “web browser”. Many publishers will tell you that social is starting to overtake search in terms of referral traffic and the only way to take advantage of that is building for the mobile in-app web.
The great web vs. app debate then comes down to picking the right tool for the job. If you’re an entrepreneur starting a new game company, go native app; if you’re an entrepreneur starting the next Buzzfeed, build for the mobile web.
The question I have now is, what is the next big “in-app browser”? My gut feels that it’s messaging services like WhatsApp, Kik, and LINE. They’ll start opening mobile web links not shared to a mass audience like Facebook, but in a P2P manner more like email.