By some counts, the argument for native apps has never been stronger. But in making that claim, are we leaving out a huge segment of online businesses?
Much of the conversation about native apps, especially as they contrast with the mobile web, centers on utility and technical capabilities. Native apps are capable of 60 FPS scrolling list views; the DOM structure of web apps isn't. Web apps have the benefits of familiar search indexing and hyperlink structures; purely native apps do not. And on down the line into technobabble.
Lately the argument has become more nuanced, as examples of hybrid apps have become more commonplace and in some cases very successful. It seems like the black and white 'war' between native and web may be giving way to simmering disagreements in shades of gray. Matt Asay at ReadWrite notes several examples of companies that are being apolitical about the whole thing and just making great apps, using whatever techniques are at their disposal.
But there's something else that's often left out of the capabilities-focused arguments: the voice of the masses. And I don't mean the masses of end-users, or developers. I mean businesses: small, family, local, medium, even large -- basically anything less than a superstar social media company or supersized national or global retailer.
A Proletariat Web?
They're "left out" because it's monopolies (or oligopolies, if we're being technical) that dominate the hype cycle for tech and retail and define the paradigm for aspiring developers, brands and strategists.
Take for example the stats by Flurry, gushed over by those already bullish on native, saying mobile users spend 86% of their time in apps. On its face it's a pretty damning report on the state of mobile web. If you're running an online business and you see that figure alone, you're likely to conclude you need an app to be where your customers are.
But let's look at where most of that big native pie slice comes from. Set aside games, which will never be a factor for mobile web browsers. Otherwise it's nearly all categories with one dominant leader or a few major players. Facebook monopolizes its own category of hyperscale social network. Youtube owns video. Twitter invented microblogging and still holds it in check. Those are the apps that suck up the lion's share of people's time. Even the more splintered categories like productivity and messaging are dependent on network effects that eventually lead to a small number of leaders. Long story short: Native apps are great for winner-take-all markets.
But do you know where there's no monopoly?
The Curtain Industry
Bear with me for a second. Think about it. Practically everyone needs curtains, and has to shop for them now and again. They're easy to ship, and unlike clothes, there's little concern over fit. Basically, they're a perfect item to buy online and avoid wasting Saturday afternoon on a trip to the mall. So what app would you use to buy curtains?
I could list out a number of common answers, from Amazon to Macy's, but the point is there's not one instant, universal answer. Curtains come from a number of different types of retailers, big and small, high-end and low. There's no monopoly. Most people faced with a need for curtains would go to the web in search of competitive prices, selection, advice, and reviews.
This scenario plays out every day for millions of products and thousands of businesses. The masses are on the web. This is what folks stuck in the hype cycle miss when they see overwhelming stats like the one we discussed before. When users are seeking entertainment, connecting with friends, or killing time, they go to apps. When they're looking to spend money on actual things -- the key behavior for most businesses -- they use the web. The web is still the conduit for search and inspiration and purchase.
This isn't just conjecture. A survey published earlier this year found apps had been relegated to the back burner for many retailers, as mobile web shopping has grown steadily while apps continue to be a tough sell. The lukewarm performance of native apps in retail is a challenge that's compounded by the high costs of maintaining multiple native apps on top of the de rigeur mobile site.
On the other side of the vendor-user coin, the same results bear out. One study found recently that 7 in 10 smartphone users would rather use a mobile website than an app to make a purchase.
The Ol' Web Creaks On
Yes, native has undeniable advantages in performance and certain utilities. Yes, it's dominating time spent by end users. And of course, app developers (and the companies that hire them) will pull for #TeamNative, because they've experienced what awesome potential native apps have, as well as the shortcomings of web experiences. But the fact remains you need a critical mass of market dominance and stickiness to drive people to an app again and again.
When looking for guidance, let's look beyond the successes of a few hot shot apps and think about the "real economy" and where it takes place: the web. Already methods like adaptive web design, sequencing, and Facebook's React Native are starting to change preconceptions about the limitations of the mobile web. Let's keep pushing the envelope. Advancing the user experience of the mobile web will remain a relevant concern for some time to come. Native has its uses, web has its uses -- what's there to fight about?