Interesting post at Mobiletech : Mobile Web vs. Native Apps. Revisited. Obviously, working at Chomp to help prop up the discovery end of the app ecosystem and funneling ourselves some of that sweet sweet app store revenue via affiliate programs, I do a whole bunch of speculating about web apps vs native apps. Particularly wondering if we’re painting ourselves into a corner working through the app stores. What I’ve ended up doing is just assuming that the browser will be a good enough delivery mechanism for applications, and it frees you to think about the really important issues. Will it be with HTML5 that we see native equivalent feel for web apps? Or with HTML6? Or HTML14.8? Ultimately I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. It’s a technical problem, and technical problems have a way of disappearing over time. And disappearing almost immediately when the right motivations are in place.
So what are the real underlying issues? I think John Arne is right to call out business models as the big issue standing in the way. I want to dig a bit deeper on that one however. Why aren’t the monetization models on mobile as diverse and rich as they are out on the web in general? It’s because generally the only thing people buy on their mobile phone is stuff for their mobile phone. If I take a look at what I’ve purchased with my iPhone over the last month, it’s an app here and there, maybe a song or two (okay, I didn’t buy any music last month – so it’s a bad example month.. but you get the idea). On the other hand, what did I pay for online in the last month? A couple of books, bits of furniture for the new apartment, hotel reservations, more electronics that I should probably admit to.
I would argue that’s the actual significant shift which put the web smack in the middle of much of the interesting change we’ve seen over the last 15 years. If all I could get via the web was information and software I think the web would have had a lot less impact. However, once I could get stuff, real life things shipped or waiting for me as a result of activity online, that opened up a whole new world of monetization methods. Why? Cause without the real world stuff the only people willing to advertise are folks selling software or subscriptions. With real world stuff the pool of advertising and promotional dollars skyrockets, and the associated ceiling for earning via indirect monetization gets lifted.
So instead of tracking if it’s going to be technically feasible to develop a native-feeling-enough HTML5 app and using that to determine if mobile development is going to tip to the web, I’ve been watching folks looking to push the business models out. Bringing offline commerce to mobile handsets is probably the reason folks like Gowalla and FourSquare are viewed as hot tickets by the investment community, and not just fads. And I don’t think it’s an accident that lots of folks who have had positive experiences with the app store, such as Flixster, have a component of their app that’s based on in-app purchases of offline goods (movie tickets in this case).
The two common subcases of the discussion that don’t move things offline (in-app purchases of digital goods, and paid distribution for web apps) are effectively just tweeks to the existing model. They don’t really unlock any new value, they just shift around where the customer decision point is and potentially unlock a larger portion of the same pool of revenue. But they don’t fundamentally shift things in a way that give access to previously untapped pools of money. They’re problems worth addressing, but they’re really the blunt end of the stick.
The promising part is that really there’s no technical barrier in the way of opening up mobile services to offline commerce. Much of the same systems that we have for online commerce work just as well on a handset. But just like with the web, having the technology available doesn’t mean you have a system that works for users. Apple has set the expectation at a certainly level with respect to “purchases on an iPhone”, being able to tie into an existing payment method has left users with an expectation for everything else to operate as smoothly. So yes, there’s definitely some work to be done, hard problems to be solved. And I think that’s really the problem to be tracking here with respect to mobile web or native app development.