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Mobile Apps vs Mobile Sites, The Looming Battle

March 21st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
Mobile Sites, Mobile Apps, Functionality & Reach

Mobile Apps and Mobile Sites trending toward similar Functionality and Handset Reach (adjusted by TAM).

In the midst of the explosive growth, tremendous success, and phenomenal media coverage of Mobile Apps, there is an alternate open delivery path that isn’t getting the attention that it probably deserves: web sites optimized for the mobile browser experience. For want of a better name, I’ll call these Mobile Sites. This looming Apps vs Sites battle for the mind share of developers and users will be one of the most interesting things to watch in the near term future of mobile.

Mobile Applications (downloaded from iPhone App Store, Android Market, BlackBerry App World, etc.) have the clear advantage in terms of functionality, but the relative differentiation versus Mobile Sites is diminishing over time. Mobile Sites have the clear advantage in terms of Handset Reach (adjusted to be % of Total Available Market for your mobile startup’s brainchild), but this differentiation relative to Mobile Apps is also diminishing over time.

More thoughts on the looming Mobile Apps vs Mobile Sites battle in subsequent posts.

Aside number one. It is important to adjust Handset Reach on the basis of market opportunity for your startup. Not all mobile subscribers are created equally. Don’t make the mistake of equating a $5/month ARPU pre-paid subscriber in a developing country with a $100/month ARPU post-paid smartphone subscriber in a developed country–the latter probably represents substantially more than 20X the monetization potential for your startup.

Aside number two. Note that Voice and SMS are the forgotten Universal Clients in mobile. As noted in Five Open Paths in Mobile, while circuit switched calls and good old text messages have limited functionality, they have tremendous reach and just about everyone with a mobile phone knows how to use them. If your business model requires ubiquity (eg, any model primarily dependent on viral user acquisition), these are tremendously attractive platforms to work on top of.

  • Isaac de la Pena

    Thank you Eric for this great start, and looking forward to further posts on this very important matter.

    I couldn’t agree more with you regarding the fact that “this looming Apps vs. Sites battle for the mind share of developers and users will be one of the most interesting things to watch in the near term future of mobile”.

    But I don’t agree in the sense that the battle would be won over by the Mobile Sites yet. The browser is “dying of success” in the sense that it has too many tasks to solve, thus settles for the most-common-denominator, and being standardized by consensus makes it evolve very slowly. Now that native development technologies are Internet-savvy enough, the on-device portal model offers the best user experience which is the ultimate deciding factor in consumer adoption and, hence, developer preferences.

    Of course the borderlines are blurring: you can embed a browser widget on your native app. Is that web browsing? I wouldn’t claim so. It already has become a mantra in the Valley that “you do iPhone first for rich experience, then mobile web for reach” and you work it from there depending on your strategy (e.g. next Blackberry if go for corporate, or Android if you go for consumer…).

    The only factor that could accelerate browser transition would be further fragmentation in terms of the OS landscape, but I see things going rather in the opposite direction (consolidation to 4 or maybe 3 dominant OS). Therefore, though it is still very important (it connects you to all sources of information for which there is no specific app) I don’t think the browser will be having the pivotal role anytime soon.

    There are lots of hopes put on HTML5 and that will be a great step ahead, but there is also a lot of uncertainty, e.g. rumors that Google is setting its own proprietary standard (same old standard wars story with new players – they are so dependent in their open internet strategy that they cannot settle for a middle of the road experience).

  • Eric Ver Ploeg

    @ Isaac, thanks for this thoughtful comment!

    I completely agree with many of your key points: (i) the line between an App and a Site is a very blurry one; (ii) the mobile Browsers may be trying to do too much and be the “most common denominator” (which will massively slow their deployment); (iii) the likely reduction of the number of mobile OS’s out there; and (iv) the incentives of various players, such as Google, whose interests may break the open “good enough” Browser approach.

    But, I think there are a few reasons to believe that a Site-based approach may eventually dominate the mobile landscape (largely displacing the current App-based dominance). I’ve got a draft post that I hope to put up in the next day or so on this…