The Death of Mobile Apps

 

I still remember the first time I uttered the phrase “Death of Mobile Apps” during a trip to a technology conference in the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 2014. It raised more than a few eyebrows. People thought I was either joking or delusional. They shook their heads and shrugged the idea off. Less than a year later, however, there’s a paradigm shift under way and more businesses are generating more traffic through their browser applications rather than mobile apps. More and more users are realizing like I did that having to constantly update the mobile apps that clutter their mobile screens is a nuisance and waste of valuable bandwidth. Couple this with recent revelations that mobile app downloads are easily manipulated and can expose users to data thieves, and I think my seemingly crazy prediction is coming true: mobile app development has peaked and is about to head into decline.

 

Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of good mobile apps that will stand the test of time, that consumers want or even need on their mobile devices, but the number of apps being created and published around the world will fall drastically. Most of them will be replaced with browser-based applications that update automatically without eating any of a user’s bandwidth and whose icons won’t muddle users’ screen.

 

But it’s not just consumers who will drive the shift away from mobile apps. App creators will be pushing for the shift, as well. That’s because these programs have primarily been made for one of the following three reasons:

 

1.
 To generate revenue through the sale of the app,

2.
 To generate revenue through the sale of in-app add-ons or advertising, and

3.
 To create brand awareness and marketing exposure for their businesses.

 

As the number of mobile apps has exploded on both the Apple Store and Google Play market places, the chances of an app developer’s success has dwindled to nearly nothing. According to tech advisory Gartner Inc., less than 1% of mobile applications will ever reach a stage of financial sustainability. Even accounting for the increase of in-app sales, few will ever break even. What’s more, selling advertising space and in-app purchases, and generating brand awareness can all be accomplished just as easily with browser-based mobile applications.

 

Consider the following arguments to support my view about the mobile app world:

 

Development Costs for Every Platform

 

We all know that most mobile apps live on iOS and Android and there are very few apps for the Windows and Blackberry platforms. But why? You may think the small user base of those platforms is to blame and while this argument is true, it misses a more important point; it’s all about cost. Developing good mobile apps requires a significant investment of time and money. With the negligible ROI on the lesser used platforms, most app publishers simply don’t see the logic of investing in the effort. Since each platform requires a different set of development skills, most companies have to support a large development team with many programmers creating the exact same thing, but in different programming languages. This is the ultimate business inefficiency.

 

With browser-based apps, however, there’s no need to invest in creating software for specific platforms. Developers capture all users with a single investment, significantly increasing the efficiency of their efforts.

 

Apps Are Usually Behind

 

Compared to web-based applications, standalone mobile apps are always behind by one or two development cycles. Businesses are always updating their digital assets, deploying them worldwide within weeks, if not days. This constant rush means there are inevitable shortfalls in overall quality, especially when it comes to the app’s localization, i.e. translation into different languages. Compared to web based-applications that usually only need to be localized once, localization of mobile apps usually costs more and takes longer due to multiple versions for different platform support. Even when an app doesn’t require translation, by the time it’s finally ready for release it almost always lags behind available web-based applications.

 

The Old Desktop Application Analogy

 

Before mobile apps ever existed, there were those for the desktop.  Desktop apps ruled the PC industry before widespread adoption of the Internet changed everything. Now, with cloud- and web-based applications, more and more enterprise apps are executed within browsers, making standalone desktop apps less and less necessary. I expect to see a similar trend with mobile apps as more and more of them find their home inside a browser window.

 

HTML 5 Changes Everything

 

One reason most people love their apps is their supposedly superior interface and rich media features. However, the introduction of HTML 5 is changing everything. HTML 5 supports rich media just as well as standalone apps, and in some cases better. Newer browser-based applications take advantage of HTML 5’s assortment of rich media features and create stunning user experiences that rival the best standalone mobile apps.

 

Faster, Easier, Cheaper Localization

 

With web-based applications, localization is simple. HTML is essentially a text file that can be processed easily by all of today’s translation tools. HTML also automatically expands and contracts the layout to accommodate the requirement of the localized language. There are also less concerns about isolating resources. Think of resources as everything in an app that is not code, these include text strings, images, videos, etc. Resources simplify the code you have to write by moving the creation of complex sets of data or graphical content outside of your code. Resources are then loaded at runtime to appropriately display the content. HTML 5 already handles these very nicely. Most CAT tools can process HTML and XML-based content straight out of the box, so you don’t have to worry too much.

 

Better Security

 

Unlike browser-based applications that are bounded by the browser security restrictions, standalone apps can often gain unfettered access to sensitive information such as your address book and phone logs. I would rather trust the few big companies that are behind the browsers than a large number of unknown entities distributing standalone mobile apps, regardless of what Apple or Google have done to vet them.

 

 

Better SEO

 

When it comes to online marketing and search engine optimization, the mobile app simply can’t compete with a well developed browser-based application. The reason is simple: web crawlers can’t get into your app to index its text. Web-based applications, on the other hand, not only attract more users through organic search, the time the users spend on the site also contribute to a better search ranking, thus increasing traffic in a self-reinforcing cycle.

 

Conclusion

 

While the mobile application business continues to receive a lot of hype, today’s technologies are making it an increasingly unattractive endeavor. As HTML 5 functionality expands, consumers will increasingly demand browser-based programs. Ultimately, the real winners will be the app developers and publishers who begin creating these offerings early on.

 

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