Initially Steve Jobs invited developers to create web 2.0 ajax apps on top of the safari browser, a few weeks before the iphone launch. Then in 2008 he did a 180° turn and opened the native appstore. Why ? Simply because the technology (browsers, devices) & the networks weren’t ready (and also because the 30% appstore cut would become a nice revenue line).
Timewise, Steve Jobs was right in 2008. But what about today ? Here are the 7 main reasons why I think appstores are doomed in the long run.
1° the download / access flow is just bad
let’s take the following scenario: you receive a link to an app via email, you open the email in gmail on your mobile, tap on the link (same scenario applies to twitter, facebook,…), 2 possibilities: either you see a splash page inviting you to download the app (or proceed to a — not always — responsive mobile website, subpar experience in most cases) OR you are redirected to the appstore (iOS or googleplay or another independent provider), then you have to tap again on “download”, enter your credentials if logged out, wait for the download to be completed, tap on “open” and, finally, you can sit back & enjoy the content. If there’s a bug or if the experience is crappy, you simply delete the app and never come back again. Hum hum… Only 16% will give a failing app a second chance (details of a recent study right here http://tcrn.ch/LdErJG ). It’s also interesting to note that 25% of the users will open an app just once after downloading it and 69% will open it 10 times or less, i.e. the vast majority of people downloading a native app won’t become loyal users (worth reading http://slidesha.re/1kAoMnf).
With a mobile web app, you tap on the link, it opens the web app either in the associated browser or even as a web view in the messaging app itself (twitter / facebook) and you enjoy the content straight away. No redirection, multiple taps, waiting time, etc… Frictionless. Think about the impact just in terms of advertising conversion.
I’d like also to mention the “international issue”, i.e. that some apps are only available in some regional appstores, whereas the internet is global by essence. Countless times I bumped into a “country warning” telling me that I couldn’t download an app advertised on the web. Bad UX.
2° updates are a pain
both for the app creators and for their users. If you want to adapt your design / content, you have to submit the update to the appstore and, if accepted, the users have to download the update. Ok, in iOS7 you have “automatic updates” as an option but it’s even worse when you have 50 apps constantly updating in the background, slowing down your device :-(. As a user, if you don’t update the app, you simply run an outdated version and most users don’t even know it…
Iteration based on customer feedback / market evolution + adding new features are critical for any fast moving startup and it’s much easier in a web environment than via the appstores closed systems. You simply commit the update & next time users open your app, it’s totally fresh. Frictionless, again.
3° discovery is terrible
Searching for apps in an appstore is almost like looking for content in the dark ages of the early internet. Even Apple’s appstore gets a bad score http://venturebeat.com/2013/11/18/apples-app-store-discovery-20x-better-than-google-play-report-says/
There are some discovery apps offered by independent vendors but, for obvious commercial reasons, their results are biased and they don’t give a comprehensive picture of the ecosystem. http://www.148apps.com/news/real-reason-appgratis-pulled-selling-top-10-placement/
Moreover, incentivized app installs are impacting the top apps listings, so crucial to get a chance to be noticed (there’s no real long tail benefit on the appstores where popular apps get the majority of downloads in an exacerbated Pareto pattern, as described by Yann Lechelle from Appsfire in this article (in French) http://bit.ly/1d3Xcoc). And the abandonment rate of the apps downloaded via incentive schemes is extremely high, giving a totally false picture of the actual CPI.
On the WWW you simply use Google (or another traditional search engine) and, if you apply SEO best practices, you mobile web app will surface as any other website. Your app will always be one click / tap away from the user. Don’t reinvent the wheel when you can use proven powerful tools and integrate your content in a vibrant open ecosystem.
update (october 2014). Recent studies have shown that the median annual revenue per developer from the native appstores doesn’t exceed $400 (yes a whopping $400…). 96% of smartphone app developers don’t recoup their investment, i.e. they lose money. This is a totally unsustainable ecosystem. You’d better learn how to sing and try to score a music hit than hope to be a winner on the appstores! Here is the full article: http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2014/08/the-comprehensive-app-economics-blog-2014-yes-peak-app-is-apt-name-sheer-disaster-industry-with-only.html
4° 30% transaction fees are a steal
As a developer, on the open web, you can easily implement solutions like Paypal with a maximum fee for merchants of 2.9% + $0.3 per transaction (it can go down to 1.4% with a merchant account. Paypal also offers a special rate for digital goods: 5% + $0.05 per transaction https://www.paypal.com/us/webapps/mpp/digital-goods ). On the appstores, it’s 30% for in-app purchases (+ potentially extra processing fees depending on how you want to get paid by the store). This makes a huge difference in terms of margin. One could argue that you also pay for “being in the appstore” but if you’re not a best “seller”, you won’t surface and users won’t be able to easily find you (other than by typing your app name, but they could have done this in Google with a direct access to your mobile web app ;-)). Payment UX still needs to be improved on the mobile web compared with the “one tap” experience offered by the appstores but we’re getting there (Paypal announced on January 13, 2014 the in-context checkout, letting you pay without leaving the merchant site https://www.paypal-pages.com/incontextcheckout/). Frictionless experiences already exist via carrier & psms billing but they’re only relevant for high margin digital goods providers, due to the hefty carriers commissions.
5° native doesn’t equal quality.
Even in the most curated app store, the iOS one, you come across a lot of really bad apps with an awful UI/UX, which doesn’t even justify the need for “validation” when you think about it. At least on the open web if you land on a bad app, you can leave it straight away. No promise means no “store-anger” if the experience sucks. Whereas on the appstores, you need to login / download / open / see the crap & delete it. And if you’re disappointed, the pain of the flow means you’ll never come back.
6° most apps need the internet anyway
If you offer an app plugged to realtime data or an app displaying a live feed or some dynamic rich content, you need the internet anyway. So why not simply develop a mobile web app, seamlessly connected to the internet ?
You could argue this doesn’t apply to most single-player games (e.g. Angry Birds or Candy Crush) which are so popular on the appstores. True and at the moment games are certainly the most difficult thing to execute in the mobile browser at a UX level comparable with their native counterparts, especially if you want to play in a non-connected environment. But it’s also evolving and we would just need more local storage / caching possibilities to free offline games from the appstores.
7° why would you wrap your WEB app in a NATIVE shell?
Nowadays, a lot of developers actually make html5 apps shipped to the appstores via different wrapping providers (e.g. Phonegap). Why would you do this if your app can immediately run in the main browser ? OK, granted, you bet on the supermarket “appstore effect”. But did you know that half of the revenue in the iOS appstore goes to 25 developers ? http://www.kinvey.com/blog/1913/app-ecosystem-weekly-app-store-revenues-grow-for-apple-google-and-microsoft Market yourself in the open web, use SEO and other growth hacking methods to get noticed, you will have better odds to find your target audience.
Techies will argue that you need a wrapper to access some functions in the device. It’s partly true http://www.w3.org/2009/dap/ & http://mobilehtml5.org/ but browsers are evolving (especially Chrome). Did you know for instance that since september 2012 on iOS (& earlier on Android) it’s been possible to access your device camera via the browser ? (shooting pictures + using photos from your camera roll). Something “critical” you can’t do at the moment with a mobile browser is notifications but it’s coming http://www.w3.org/TR/push-api/ and in the meantime you can always send essential messages via transactional email, they will pop up as native notifications through gmail for instance (or via SMS using Twilio).
You could also argue that a wrapper offers a neat full screen experience (vs opening the app inside a browser window). Correct but if you want to interact with web properties outside the app (and it happens a lot) the links will open a separate browser and you won’t be able to get back to the full screen hybrid app, which will close (you will have to re-open the app from the homescreen). When everything takes place in the browser, you can easily switch between tabs (for instance after a Paypal payment). Moreover, here again, browsers are evolving, with less and less chrome around the content experience. An invisible browser would instantly solve the “problem”. I believe that in the foreseeable future the browser might be embedded into the OS, enabling you to use mobile web apps without the need to “open” a browser. FirefoxOS can be considered as the first attempt in this direction. All we need is a properly executed UI layer on top of the www, seamlessly accessed from any connected device. This way all the apps would finally be web apps, with the notion of “mobile” (vs desktop) fading away in the post smartphone era, the internet of things.
To execute mobile web apps properly (making them as sexy as their best native counterparts in terms of UX), you need outstanding developers. That’s the main challenge today. But I can tell you there are talents out there who are truly excited by this new frontier: reaching app excellence on the mobile web. Helped by technological (hardware + software) & networks (3G to 4G to ?) evolutions, we’re heading in the right direction. That’s why I think appstores are doomed in the long run.
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