Mobilism: Future of the Mobile Web

by Luke Wroblewski May 14, 2011

In his The Future of the Mobile Web presentation at Mobilism in Amsterdam, Netherlands Peter-Paul Koch talked about the role of Web applications, app stores, and mobile data services over the next few years. Here are my notes from his talk:

  • The native vs. Web discussion is becoming boring. We’re pretty adept at finding out when to use a native mobile Web application vs. Web applications. The final answer of course is “it depends”.
  • An HTML5 app is one core application written to HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Deployed to several mobile platforms (this is the tricky part). Ideally its CSS and Javascript are stored on the device. If it can’t be deployed to a mobile platform it is still a Website.
  • Device APIs are available in native apps. They tie your app to the “mobile” context. Web apps need device APIs but they currently are not available in the Web browser.
  • This year will see the advent of the cheap Android phone. Likely around $75. In the next few years, this price will drop even further. Soon to $25 which will allow “the next billion” to use Web and smartphone apps. But how will they be distributed if data plans remain too expensive for this population?
  • In the future, Web apps should be downloadable via Bluetooth so people can share them with one another. In earlier testing it was possible to send a Web application from a Symbian device to a Windows Mobile app, it almost worked.
  • But device to device sharing of apps only helps skirt the data plan issue for initial downloads. How do we get data from the cloud to the phone without incurring high data costs? Most likely the data will be sent as JSON (over SMS) because JSON is lightweight and somewhat human-readable. This data would just work in Web apps because it is already Javascript.
  • WiFi is still not available in most parts of the world. Data plans are too expensive. But SMS makes it possible to push data to the phone. 97% of the 4.5 billion phones in the world support SMS. SMS is a cash cow for many carriers. Premium SMS costs even more money. Perhaps instant messaging service may take over for SMS eventually as long as it is push-based and there is a way to charge for it.

App Stores

  • If users can share apps freely (via Bluetooth), we don’t need app stores anymore. Apps stores currently help with distribution and discoverability, ease of payments and making money. It works for Apple but will it work for others?
  • The distribution advantage of the app store is not that much better than the Web. Discoverability is a challenge as there are many apps available in stores.
  • Instead of app store, payments can be tied to people’s operator bill. Kenya has 25% of GDP paid by SMS.
  • An app store needs a payment system, system admins, content checkers, documentation & best practices, hosting, and more. The cost of entry to creating an app store is high.
  • There are over a hundred app stores now. But the majority of them are not likely to make a profit. Apple does well but the average mobile company will not. Apple has leverage with enthusiastic developers and affluent consumers. They have built an excellent operating system for the most affluent audience in the World.
  • Google has leverage with developers but not with consumers (yet). They had to team up with handset manufactures and carriers but don’t yet have the ability to connect directly with mobile consumers.
  • Nokia, Samsung, and RIM have leverage with consumers (but are less willing to spend money). The challenge for them is to gain developer mindshare.
  • So most mobile companies don’t have both developer and consumer advantages. Both are needed for a successful app store.
  • Will any app stores survive? They won’t actually end but you may not need them as much moving forward. Apple will survive and a couple others might as well. But the other 96+ likely will not.
  • Many native apps will be replaced by Web apps. Device APIs will help make this possible (though security issues need to be addressed).
  • Summarizing the future of the mobile Web: Apps will be shared by Bluetooth. Web data will be offered by SMS as JSON. You will pay for the content not for the app. App stores are on the defensive.