13 Jun 2011

Round-up of our 6 June 2011 event: HTML vs. Apps–You Decide

viji pathyThis month’s write-up is brought to you by regular Mobile Monday London volunteer, Viji Pathy. Viji is an independent mobile software consultant at MoKaadu Ltd

MoMoLo's “HTML or Apps - You Decide” was a debate on the relative merits of applications and the web as a channel to engage consumers and provide mobile services and products, now and in the near future. The panel consisted of 2 teams with each speaker getting 5 minutes to contribute to the case for their team. The event was sponsored by the lovely folks at BlackBerry.

BlackBerry_Logo_Preferred_Black_RChaired by Leila Makki, the debate began with an introduction by Andy Tipton from RIM discussing the main factors which have come together to make mobile such an interesting commercial proposition recently:

  • Connectivity used to be the most challenging factor as well as the most expensive element of utilising mobile as a channel, but mobile technologies have become more and more advanced and able to provide always-on connectivity with the advent of WiFi, WiMax and 4G.
  • Device Hardware capabilities have increased to allow advanced functionality to be executed on the client side, whether through apps or via the browser.
  • Device Software platforms have evolved from the days of basic J2ME devices and only a few smartphone platforms such as Symbian and Windows Mobile, to a range of advanced mobile platforms in the last few years, and on the web side the HTML5 and JavaScript specification advances are facilitating advanced mobile web propositions.
  • Finally the Business Model opportunities to monetise services (whether by credit card transaction, advertising or operator billing) has contributed, as well as the ability to streamline user interaction via a 1 click process, such as iTunes or the “one-click” apps introduced by RIM. Andy concluded RIM themselves use a range of native, web, and hybrid solutions which use web technologies wrapped into downloadable apps.

gavelThe debate started with Team Captain of Team Apps, Sam Machin (website) from O2. He told us the key advantage of apps was discoverability, the first thing a user could do to find a service they wanted was use the in-built app store on most devices, easily accessible from the home screens, select the relevant category, find a suitable app and complete the process with a 1-click installation. Web searches on the other hand meant using the browser to open a search engine, which might output thousands of pages making it hard to find something which met the user's need directly amongst so much information. Sam also noted that nowadays most apps on the major smartphone platforms are not web apps but native apps which make full use of the platform functionality, and countered the argument that developers were easier to find for web development by noting that there was increasingly huge opportunities and availability for native app developers.

Team Captain of Team Web, Bryan Rieger of Yiibu, made the first argument for Team Web by talking about numbers – of the world population of over 6.7 billion, around 74% have a mobile phone, meaning the are over 5 billion mobile users on the planet. He compared this figure to the number of users for particular smartphone platforms, such as around 100 million iPhone users in total. In addition prices were rapidly coming down for all devices which would only increase overall numbers, and most devices already came with a browser. In fact in many countries, a large proportion of web users only had access to the mobile version, this was especially true of the developing world and emerging markets, but even true of significant numbers in the West. He also noted that there might be limited opportunities to get a return on investment for businesses investing in native only mobile solutions, because of the high development costs and increasingly low prices being charged for apps on most app stores, for instance a large proportion of apps on Apple's store charged the minimum 59p, and significant proportions on both the App Store and the Android Market were completely free. Bryan concluded with the point that everyone has access to the web and that users want the choice of access to the same services from whichever device they are using, and an integrated experience to all services from their device such as links to social networking sites which were only available in the web.

Alex Watson (website), who is head of app development for Dennis Publishing, continued the debate for Team Apps saying the purpose of a web site was often not easily understood by many normal consumers in simple terms, i.e. what was it for? Web sites could often be very complex but lacking a clear purpose. Single purpose apps make sense to users, who are able to easily find a specific utility, download it, and easily navigate to it whenever required from the home screen – this made users build a regular relationship with the app and use the service more. By giving users a more focused experience, concentrating on limited functionality of use to them, users are rewarded and that's why apps are so popular.

Mauricio Reyes from Flirtomatic, then continued the debate for Team Web, he also compared the numbers involved, noting that Apple and Google boasts of 100m iPhones sold and 350K Android devices activated every day were not so impressive compared with the 5.3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide. Even now feature phones are still selling in huge numbers, so any business should ask itself ‘who are my users?’, ‘what devices do they have?’, and ‘which ones will they be likely to update to in the future?’ Users of mobile services don’t fall neatly into small groups of handset owners so when considering where to put your services, mobile web has to be a major part of your mobile strategy. Mauricio noted that Flirtomatic's revenue split (via add-ons such as virtual gifts) was 74% from mobile web compared to 26% from native apps.

Rebecca Pate who is Mobile Product Manager for Tesco, concluded the debate for Team Apps, noting that at Tesco, native apps have encouraged users to come back regularly to use Tesco's services – this was because apps provided a personalised service for the user with push notifications and personalised widgets which encouraged habitual use, they offered a more enhanced and optimised UX with features such as transition effects and gesture interaction, and integration with other services on the device such as messaging, as well as with device hardware such as accelerometers and the camera.

Finally Cait Roberts (blog) from MePlease, concluded the debate for Team Web, noting that mobile search was getting better and better on the mobile web, with stats indicating that mobile search engine traffic had increased 247% in the past year and that 49% of users on the mobile web had made a purchase based on the mobile web search, these figures were very high compared with the comparative figures for native app usage and purchases. She noted that often apps did not give users a satisfactory experience and they couldn't interact with all the services they required, and mobile users tended to blame the brand rather than the device for a poor mobile experience. So brands needed to create a mobile strategy which include first and foremost a mobile web solution to get full awareness amongst all their users. She cited M&S and Dominos Pizza and other examples of brands having great mobile web solutions as a major part of their mobile strategy had resulted in huge increases in sales.

Next the panel considered questions from the audience.

Did the cost of app development (averaging £20K per app) justify the investment? Rebecca thought it did as Tesco had recouped the investment in their iPhone app within a week of publishing, because of its popularity with users. Sam thought the same and also noted that the mobile web, although potentially a large platform, did not yet equate to real users and and a real market. Bryan however felt that only targeting a tiny proportion of (usually your richest) users could leave huge parts of the population unable to access your services, which was an issue for large companies and government organisations. Team Web also though that the investment did not often pay off if you were relying directly on monetising the app without linking to other business models.

What about services requiring complex functionality, were they better served by mobile web or apps? Sam noted that O2 are currently working on very complex apps using telephony and rich graphics which the mobile web did not yet support. How did the fragmentation of browsers affect the web as a an ubiquitous platform? Cait thought that as long as your baseline for each solution was chosen well, the web could provide better solutions for each user, for instance touch web sites and better search and discovery. Was integrating to web based social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook important for mobile? Alex agreed that a multi-platform approach should be taken, with services available everywhere but with the UX tailored to specific users, such as integration with device features such as sending messages for app users. Did advertising models used in apps have an impact, for example for competitor adverts? Sam thought this was not more of an issue in apps, which gave users a more controlled UX, for instance allowing users to do a highly targeted search in an app store, whereas search engines like Google returned users a lot of generic adverts.

Will apps end be like ringtones, i.e. hugely hyped for a few years then disappear? Alex thought ringtones were a different case because users were often scammed after purchase, but Cait thought there might be a similar problem emerging with apps where unsatisfied users were unable to get refunds from app stores. Was app store curation going to be an issue for apps, for instance with Apple controlling distribution and placing restrictions on app store content (such as gambling apps), businesses were not free to create products in the way they could on the web? Team Web agreed but Alex noted there could be benefits for app store curation, giving the users a better experience, Team App also noted the control Google had over decreasing rankings in user searches.

Is there a monetisation model using the web for software creators not linked to an existing business, such as games creators? Cait thought there was and pointed out web based social media is increasingly monetising web solutions through various models, Mauricio also agreed noting Flirtomatic uses a model of online payment for virtual currency and gifts which has proved successful.

How did the panel see things progressing in 5-10 years time? Sam thought that although the web would have long since caught up on existing technologies, it will always trail future technologies introduced in apps by companies such as Apple because of the need for standards agreements, so premium services will always be available first on high-end platforms and devices. Alex also noted that the technologies introduced in apps have a positive effect on the mobile web and vice versa, so there would be mutual benefit in having both options. If the browser ended up being just another app, how would the tide away from the web be stopped? Bryan thought there were issues with moving into an app-only scenario, with companies like Apple and Microsoft tying businesses and developers into their proprietary platforms, whereas the web provided them with a layer of abstraction. Alex thought there were similar issues on the web with companies like Google wanting everything free to sell their own business model.

Could installable web apps be another option? Sam agreed noting that the technologies used were less important than the ability for users to have focused installable solutions easily available to them on their device home screens. Is it the case that apps are the more reliable option now, but that will change in future as the mobile web becomes a better platform? Bryan thought that the mobile web was not very far behind apps in technology terms, and Cait emphasised that that they key was finding out where your consumers are currently accessing web services from and supporting that channel. The final comments from the audience supported a multi-platform strategy, with apps and the web used for different purposes as required.

With the debate rounded up, the audience cast the final vote on which solution they saw as the future. The result was very close indeed, but the winners were...Team Web – Bryan, Cait and Mauricio.

A big thank you to all our speakers – Leila Makki, Sam Machin, Alex Watson, Rebecca Pate, Bryan Rieger, Mauricio Reyes, Cait Roberts and Andy Tipton. A big thank you to our sponsors, BlackBerry – don’t forget to check out their BlackBerry Developer Zone and you may also be interested to take a look at this year's BlackBerry Developer Challenge... lots of categories and lots of prizes on offer.

Our next events are on 20 June on Geo-spatial matters with UCL and on 4 July, where we’re taking a look at the state of the developer nation with BlueVia. Registration is now open for both events at http://momolo.org