Mobile Apps vs. Web Apps

by Luke Wroblewski July 20, 2009

Today news sources (like the BBC) are trumpeting the market for mobile applications will become "as big as the Internet." Clearly, we're not going to have as many applications on any specific mobile platform as on the Internet at large. So what's the story here?

Mobile app stores can provide access to the few services that matter online. Therefore they can deliver the top sites that most people care about and actually use on a daily basis. Mobile app platforms can lure developers away from building applications for the Web with integrated capabilities (multimedia, sensors, monetization, etc.) and consistent run-times (no cross-platform and cross-browser development). Mobile stores actually make it possible for services to be found through smaller catalogs, structured data, and browse/merchandising features.

The Few Services that Matter

The top 50 Internet properties (PDF of comScore rankings) represent a disproportionate amount of Web traffic. Consider that 157 million of the 193 million total US Internet audience visited Google. So if a mobile application platform has representation of the top 50 sites on the Web, they have a huge amount of coverage for core Web behaviors. Essentially most services people could access on the Web, they could then access on a mobile app. If they begin using their mobile apps more than the URLs in their desktop Web browser, that's a problem for Web applications. Current data shows this is exactly what's going on.

Rich Capabilities

Many mobile application platforms are attractive to developers because they have technical capabilities that leave the Web browser behind. In order for Web applications to really compete with native mobile applications, they'll need some serious enhancements. Many of which are in active development in HTML 5 and proprietary solutions from companies like Google:

  • The ability to run offline. In HTML 5 AppCache and Database make it easier to run apps offline and Google has built this into Gears & Chrome
  • The ability to run more efficiently. Javascript performance improvements and the ability to run background threads that do processing that would otherwise slow the browser to a crawl (Web workers in HTML 5).
  • Access to operating system resources. Making use of sensors, audio, image, and video output and inputs as well as local file stores. The video and audio element in HTML 5: embed audio/video on a web page like you embed images today (no plugins).
  • The ability to render graphics and animations quickly and elegantly. For example, Apple's iPhone supports Quartz, Core Animation, and OpenGL ES. Quartz is a powerful 2D drawing engine for creating vector graphics, bitmap images, and PDF content. Core Animation is the technology that adds smooth motion and dynamic feedback to your user interface by creating an illusion of motion. OpenGL ES is the interface for high-performance 3D graphics on mobile devices. HTML 5 includes the canvas element: a way to draw graphics on a web page using Javascript


Lastly, though many complain about the difficulty of getting found within large mobile application store inventory. Their chances are still better than on the open Web. As an example, Apple's App store (perhaps the most popular store now) has 65,000 applications. Google indexes and searches over a trillion Web pages.

App stores also maintain structured data about applications. That is, developers provide titles, categories, descriptions, screenshots, release dates, pricing, and more to app store owners when they submit their application. This creates a structured set of data that can be searched against. On the open Web, search engines are often trying to stitch a lot of these attributes together themselves and as a result, fall short. Structured data provides more (dependable) ways to enable people to find services. Lastly, app stores have built in browsing and merchandising features so apps are not solely dependent on people's search terms to be found. As a result, the chances of sticking out in an app store are much improved.