Interesting trends are stacking up towards a conclusion that fueled, once again, a never ending dispute: Mobile Web vs. Native. The essence still remains blurry due to an inability to objectively observe the big picture and a self sufficiency to decree, for the second time in the last 3-4 years, the death of something that’s very much part of our daily life: The Web.
By analyzing 4 key trends (see below Infographic) I’m going to show that, in fact, we’re witnessing a process that has the potential to change the face of the Web as we know it.
It is an evolutionary process and I’m going to refer to it as “The Appification of The Web”.
Over 1 Billion Mobile Devices Shipped in 2013
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, vendors shipped a total of 1,004.2 million smartphones worldwide in 2013, up 38.4% from the 725.3 million units in 2012.
In addition to that, tablets will rise to break the 300 million unit mark in 2014 (combining tablet shipments of 263 million and shipments of “other ultramobiles” of 40 million units).
These two numbers are critical for understanding the driving force behind the third important trend: according to ComScore, mobile users will surpass desktop users in 2014.
There isn't really too much to comment around these numbers, on their own, but, in connection with the impact they have on the Web, there’s a lot of speculation:
- Chris Dixon, the entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, says: “Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.” However he also worries that: “Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google and they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin).”
- Marc Andreessen, who at 22 invented Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, and later cofounded Netscape, said in a Wired interview back in 2012:
“The application model of the future is the web application model … Mobile apps on platforms like iOS and Android are a temporary step along the way toward the full mobile web. Now, that temporary step may last for a very long time … But if you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model. Because the technology wants it to work that way.”
- Keith Rabois, who backed Yelp among many others, said, “nobody is going to be using the web soon” in a tweet.
- Paul Stamatiou, a designer at Twitter and a startup veteran, tweeted last November: “How many yrs until native mobile apps as we know them don’t exist? 10? No more installing. Mobile browsers/OS will be different beasts then.”
Let’s have a look at some Web-related numbers and see if there’s any sense to it all.
1 Billion Sites Barrier to Be Breached in 2014
Just this April, Netcraft.com published that it has registered a total of 958,919,789 sites — 39 million more than the previous month and it is to be expected that the 1 Billion mark will be exceeded within the next few months.
Now, the question is: How’s the Web traffic impacted by the ever growing number of mobile devices and where it is all going?
According to StatCounter.com, mobile usage is increasing by almost 1% every month and it has reached ~24% of all Web activity, with ~6% coming from tablets.
In other words, with nearly 30% of the Web traffic coming from mobile & tablet devices, it seems that responsiveness alone could be the solution to make all those billion sites out there mobile-ready. Sure enough, Responsive Web Design has been adopted as a standard for creating websites in 2014, but is it really enough when addressing mobile users?
Digressing for a moment, but just to unearth some similarities with the print industry: remember the turmoil the Internet created among print publishers during the 90s? In his book, “The Shift — From Print to Digital … and Beyond”, Thomas Baekdal describes the state of the publishing industry from its inception (40,000 years ago) and how the Web started very much like the good old cave paintings: creators would do whatever they liked, without interference from anyone or anything, and people would visit their caves. In essence, what is a website if not a “cave”? We now have 1 Billion “caves” ☺
But the Internet was designed to establish a direct link between the people who create and the people who consume, with no limitations, restrictions, boundaries, filters or gatekeepers. The internet was not developed to make print “faster”, it is a world which isn’t limited in any way, where the publishers can decide what to write, and the readers can choose what to read, how to read it and where to read it.
And if we add to the mix the social component, then it becomes really interesting because we no longer have a clear distinction between publishers and readers: anyone that has a blog or is posting on Facebook, Twitter or Youtube is a content creator. The communication doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or an end. It’s a continuous organic stream of interactions. Thomas calls this the social web, which technically speaking is the same thing as the web, but conceptually speaking it’s the source of the shift from print to digital.
Going back to the Web and considering the mobile status of today’s readers, do you still think that RWD that answers only to the format issue of the “cave” is really the full fledged solution towards having a relevant mobile presence?
Mobile is all about engagement and certainly responsiveness can’t seriously be the final step into the evolution of the Web towards mobile. Something’s missing, right?
1 Million Apps Commands 86% of Our Time
Breaking the 1 million apps barrier, both by Google Play and Apple iTunes, was another race in itself, with Android landing in pole position. Nevertheless, with over 60 billion downloads, Apple’s App Store comes in 1st before Google Play (50 billion downloads).
All in all, apps commanded 86% of the average US mobile consumer’s time, or 2 hrs and 19 minutes per day. Time spent on the mobile web continued to decline and averaged just 14% of the US mobile consumer’s time, or 22 minutes per day.
Now, let’s step back for a moment. I thought there was 30% web traffic generated from mobile & table devices, something doesn't add up. How come 30% of web traffic translates only into 22 minutes per day?
Could it be that mobile users sporadically use the browser while the rest of the time web content is being loaded to them within their favorite apps, like say … Facebook? It would certainly make sense. But where there’s loads of web traffic that doesn't correlate to the time spent “on site”, there’s only one logical explanation: lack of engagement.
This comes as a confirmation that indeed, on mobile, the Web can’t really compete with other apps when responsiveness is the sole characteristic of a content that’s available, due to its very nature, on the Web. It needs more of that “appness” that mobile users are so heavily devoted to.
Mobile Web Apps - Junction of Benefits
In an article I wrote a few months back, I interviewed several prominent figures in the web technology domain, who contributed with their experience and professionalism towards defining what’s the difference between a “web site” and a “web app” and how clarifying this confusion can ultimately shape us into better users, developers or make our business blossom:
- Dominique Hazael-Massieux (Mobile Web Initiative Activity Lead at World Wide Web Consortium),
- James Pearce (Head of Developer Advocacy at Facebook), Michael Mullany (CEO at Sencha),
- Christian Heilmann (Principal Developer Evangelist — HTML5/Open Web — at Mozilla Corporation)
- Stephen Pinches (Head of Learning Technologies — ELT at Pearson plc and Group Product Manager — Mobile & Emerging Platforms at Financial Times).
According to Dominique Hazael-Massieux, if a Web site has an app-like behavior (being accessed from an icon, performing a specific task, etc.), then it becomes a Web app. James Pearce from Facebook also outlines a few key characteristics and differentiators between Web sites and Web apps, with the most important ones being: linkability, user experience and arhitecture.
Accessibility by using an URL in the browser — linkability — is the most important feature that web sites and web apps share. If we go beyond that, into user experience and architecture, we see that web apps have an interface that closely resembles native apps (navigation by swiping and tapping, fancy scroll bars, pull & refresh to load new content, running offline, etc.), while web sites display their content mostly when a page is refreshed.
Although the boundary between them can be subjective, I would say that if you run an URL on a device in full screen mode and can’t tell it’s Web based, you have stumbled upon a Web app.
Whatever one’s preference may be, there is an increasing number of mobile developers targeting web apps and that’s a fact: in the latest Developer Economics Report, Vision Mobile published for the first time that HTML5 overtook iOS in App Developer mindshare (a regular second position in Europe and North America, with Android on top) in South Asia, South America and Middle East & Africa.
HTML5 is both an app deployment platform (on-browser) and a technology for creating native apps (off-browser). 37% of mobile developers use HTML5 as a platform, i.e. to develop mobile websites, or web-apps. An additional 15% of app developers use HTML5 beyond the browser, via hybrid apps or HTML5-to-native tools.
Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s statement against HTML5? How could anyone forget, right? This was heavily disputed by Sencha through the “HTML5 is ready” contest, encouraging developers to create web apps by drawing inspiration from their native counterparts.
“The mobile web is the most fertile ground for leading edge web development because it doesn’t have the legacy of the older internet explorers that the desktop does. You can start your development with the assumption that your app or your content will be used in a fairly recent browser, so you can take advantage of a whole host of features like Canvas, inline SVG, HTML5 video, CSS3 styling etc. that bring the experience alive for the user”, as Sencha’s Michael Mullany explains.
Sencha went even further and proved that when a team has problems with HTML5, it usually stems from the fact that they take a “website” development approach to building an app, thus exhibiting what came to be referred as “the Facebook symptom”. Have a look at how their demo behaves much better as compared to the actual Facebook app. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Facebook may have done a mistake by betting on HTML5, but others have not: the Infographic above paints a story that’s filled with resounding examples of high profile companies that have gone on the same HTML5 route and didn't waver.
It’s pretty clear that together with smartphones & tablets, apps are driving people’s interactions. Applying this to the Web translates into the need to escape the page view zone and think beyond responsive web design for all those 1 Billion web sites out there. There’s a new layer to be added to the mobile web, and that’s not only responsiveness, but “appness”.
If we admit that on mobile everything is about apps and considering the HTML5 adoption trend, then we could expect the Web to evolve into a new & exciting environment, where everything is an app instead of a site, where user’s interactions are more important than just views and, ultimately, where apps are interlinked into a Web … of apps.