Browsers, not apps, are the future of mobile

A common refrain in discussions over the future of mobile is that “eventually, all mobile apps will be iOS or Android apps.”

But many of these commentators have a vested interest in helping native mobile apps survive.

Proclamations of an all-native mobile app world ignore the fact that browsers and the web are fast becoming the mobile operating system of the future, and native apps are slowly dying.

Native apps are good for some things but not all things

Native apps are, of course, great at certain things. They’re great for frequent, heavy use tasks like communicating with friends, family, and colleagues — something we do multiple times a day, every day. Apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger need to access cameras, microphones, and the OS directly. So it makes sense for these types of apps to be native iOS and Android apps.

But is there really a need for any other type of app to be installed natively?

The mobile web, and browsers of today, can easily take care of almost everything we want to accomplish.

Let’s not forget, native mobile apps were a short-term fix for short-term connectivity problems. In a 4G, wifi-everywhere world, those problems have all but disappeared.

For example, companies like Patagonia have already bid farewell to their native mobile app thanks to advances in mobile web capabilities and standards.

We spend more time in mobile web browsers than we think

It’s not just companies that are turning away from native apps — the average American now downloads zero apps per month. This has little to do with us spending time on phones — compare this app fatigue with the amount of time we’re spending in browsers.

Everyone’s familiar with Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer — “traditional” browsers with address bars, search functionality, and buttons to skip forwards and backwards. But they’re not the only browsers we use every day.

We’re spending increasing amounts of time inside messaging apps and social networks, themselves wrappers for the mobile web.

They’re actually browsers. And these browsers give us the social context and connections we crave, something traditional browsers do not.

For example, Facebook is our browser for the the social web. It makes it easy for us to browse through and discover the friends, businesses, and content we’re most likely to enjoy. Instead of having to “pull” content through traditional browsers, Facebook “pushes” content to us based on our interests and those of our friend networks. We’ve also seen a number of aesthetic shifts, with several new features to help Facebook’s iOS app approximate a real browser.

The new Facebook in-app browser features back and forward buttons, which let you bookmark pages and input your own URL.

Slack, meanwhile, is our browser for work. It makes it easy for us to discover documents, conversations, and data. In the past, we had to seek out the information we needed from our colleagues, and we’d miss out on information we didn’t know we needed. Today, our colleagues “push” documents and updates to us through browsers like Slack, making our work lives simpler and more integrated.

WhatsApp is our browser for close tie friend networks. Whether 1:1 or in small groups, we’re drip fed content personalized to us, from our closest connections. These connections “push” content to us to browse and consume. We trust their recommendations — it’s the most personal way to browse the web.

The above messaging apps are, of course, native apps. But critically they contain new functions that replace activities formerly performed in other native apps, or anywhere else for that matter.

By offering a dizzying array of features thanks to millions of smart integrations by outside software developers, there is only very little need to ever leave these new types of browsers.

In fact, these messaging and social browsers are so successful, we tend to only need three to discover, retrieve, and consume all the content we crave. No wonder Facebook, Google and many others are placing massive bets in this area. If you own the browser, you own the audience.
According to comScore, users spend 50% of their app time in the most used app, and almost 80% in their top three apps.

Bots, the new way to browse

What’s so exciting about these new browser models is that so much is still in flux.

Bookmarks were a core part of operating systems since the 1990s, represented by desktop icons and “start” menus. As we spent more time in desktop browsers, we relied on different, new types of bookmarks. We bookmarked web page urls and domain names. We installed toolbars to access services like MSN News, Google Search and Yahoo! Mail. We manually curated our own content.

What we’re seeing on mobile is that bots are appearing as a new type of dynamic bookmark for mobile web browsers.

Instead of going into the address bar, typing a url, and waiting to receive content every time, bots can push us the content as we need it. They can learn the content we’re most likely to engage with, and serve us more relevant content over time. They curate content for us.

For example, take the “@music” feature in Telegram. It uses an inline keyboard that allows you to find and listen to music, without even sending any messages. And it updates its own messages on the fly as you flip through the pages of search results.

So instead of a) a separate native mobile app (such as Spotify) or b) having to search and discover music in a browser such as Chrome, bots will be able to feed users full blown experiences that let them book reservations at restaurants or buy goods, without ever leaving their social or messaging apps.

Over time, bots are a way for us to bookmark our interests and our behaviors. The content retrieved for us is actionable. We can book things and buy things. We can read things. The curation process is powered by our close friend networks and artificial intelligence.

What this means for tomorrow’s startups

The web is and will always be the most popular mobile operating system in the world — not iOS or Android. It’s important that the next generation of software companies don’t focus exclusively on building native iOS or Android versions of existing web apps.

Just make sure those web apps render and work well in the new wave of mobile browsers — messengers. Don’t build for iOS or Android just for an imaginary distribution opportunity. Distribution exists where people spend most of their time today — social and messaging apps, the new mobile browser for a bot-enabled world.

Written by Hugh Durkin, Senior Product Manager at Intercom. Illustration by Kelsey Wroten. This post first appeared on the Inside Intercom blog, where we regularly share our thoughts on startups, company culture, product strategy and design.

Hugh shared more thoughts on this particular topic on the Inside Intercom podcast, which you can listen to below.

Intercom makes messaging apps for businesses that help them understand and talk to customers.