Black lives matter
Portrait Dr. Axel Rauschmayer
Dr. Axel Rauschmayer
Homepage | Twitter
Cover of book “JavaScript for impatient programmers”
Book, exercises, quizzes
(free to read online)
Cover of book “Deep JavaScript”
Book (50% free online)
Cover of book “Tackling TypeScript”
Book (first part free online)
Logo of newsletter “ news”
Newsletter (free)

Mobile apps – dead within three years?

[2011-10-27] mobile, dev
(Ad, please don’t block)

On 2011-09-08, Seth Sternberg, CEO of Meebo made a bold prediction:

Prediction: Mobile apps are dead in 3 yrs - mobile web wins. Faster cloud connection and faster chips. PCs all over again. Implications?
This tweet packs a lot of stuff into very few characters. Let’s look at the assertions.

Is it really mobile apps versus the mobile web? The mobile web is still missing essential features, but things such as app stores and offline operation are slowly coming. However, once the mobile web has these features then it is merely another platform for “mobile apps”.

Or is it mobile operating systems against the web? Web apps will always have to run on something. With the operating system not really being part of the web stack, mobile operating systems are here to stay. The web does not compete with operating systems, it runs on them. However, in the upper layers of an operating system, there can be competition.

Or is it web user interfaces and APIs versus native mobile user interfaces and APIs? That is a much more interesting proposition. But web technologies are already the best way of writing cross-platform mobile apps. It is also intriguing that web technologies are increasingly being used to implement the user interface layers of mobile operating systems. Prominent examples: Chrome OS, Boot to Gecko, Tizen, webOS. I expect the influence of these operating systems to increase. Web technologies allow them to evolve the user interface layer quickly and to tap the growing pool of web developers, who are already familiar with their environments. The web still has to catch up with two aspects of non-web mobile operating systems: the refinement of the user experience and the comprehensiveness of device APIs. Both are being worked on.

Mobile app store or not? Even if you have written an app using web technologies, you still have the choice of distributing it either via a mobile app store or simply putting it on the web. That is indeed a “mobile app versus web app” decision. A recent example is the Financial Times which started a web app to escape Apple’s control of the app store. The web app is now more popular than the native app. The main challenges for web-deployed apps are ease of use and security (both real and as perceived by users).

Does the web need “faster cloud connection and faster chips”? What for? To be always connected? That’s an assumption you cannot make on mobile. And accordingly, the web does not do so and offline operation is becoming an important part of it. Furthermore, connection and computing speeds are already fast enough to make web apps viable.

It’s not PCs all over again. Mobile phones are consumer electronics and thus a completely different product from PCs. They are more similar to cars: instability is not an option, hardware longevity and build quality matter much more. While I’m not always fond of Apple’s controlled approach, it does have the advantage of a more polished and safer user experience. And that matters in consumer electronics. Even Google is exerting more control, these days. Lastly:

  • Not even PCs are “PCs all over again”. Apple’s Mac business currently is more profitable and faster-growing than the rest of the industry. That’s not a bad way of “losing” against PCs.
  • Mobile computing adheres to different laws: It is harder to achieve commoditization of parts, because everything is about integration. First evidence for the difference is already there:
    • The tablet market is still completely dominated by the iPad and will remain fragmented: I expect Amazon’s Kindle Fire to do well, but it will always exist mostly separate from Android. At some point, Android should gain some traction, too.
    • In the mobile phone space, numbers are very unclear. Some show Android outgrowing the iPhone, others indicate that the iPhone is still holding its own.

Conclusion. It is unfair to respond to a tweet with a blog post, but the topic triggered so many thoughts that I had to write them down. The following three years will indeed be interesting for web developers, as the influence of web technologies will certainly increase.