The mobile web was supposed to be dead and buried, killed by Apple and its merry band of native apps. But according to new data, mobile web browsing is not only alive and well, but it's actually driving the mobile economy.
If only retailers were listening. Instead, according to a BI Intelligence report, many are so focused on apps that they've neglected the web, with just 9% even offering a responsively designed mobile website.
App development goes native
It has become trite to argue that mobile apps rule our attention. According to comScore data, for example, we spend dramatically more time in apps than in mobile browsers: 51% of all time spent on digital media in apps vs. a mere 9% in browsers.
As we invest more time in our mobile devices, this app dominance becomes ever stronger. Nielsen data indicates we now spend over 30 hours each month with mobile apps and just a sliver of that with mobile browsers.
In fact, we now spend more time with the mobile internet — as mediated by apps — than we spend on the PC internet (27 hours).
The result, argues The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Mims, is that "apps are killing [the web]":
"Everything about apps feels like a win for users — they are faster and easier to use than what came before. But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century."
All is not lost, however. It turns out that the foundation for the mobile economy may well be browsers, not apps.
Buying the web
The isolated app approach is already a poor fit for an array of media companies that depend on search to drive traffic. According to comScore, Answers.com, Craigslist, Wikimedia, WebMD, and a host of other informational sites are almost entirely web-driven.
But so are more commerce-heavy properties like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Sears, according to comScore and visualized by Business Insider.
In fact, 58% of the $57 billion in retail m-commerce in 2014 will derive from the mobile web this year, according to Internet Retailer, not apps. (Goldman Sachs projects half of all online commerce to be through mobile by 2018.)
This correlates with ADI survey data uncovering that 51% of consumers prefer the mobile web to apps when it comes to shopping.
The unfortunate irony for many retailers and their developers, however, is that even though shoppers apparently prefer to buy through the web, just 60% of the top 100 global retailers have a dedicated mobile website, according to BI Intelligence.
Why developers should care
Many developers seem to believe that apps were the answer to their financial woes, but they may only be the beginning.
For example, while a massive VisionMobile survey of over 10,000 developers shows that developers tend to opt for a blend of native app development with an advertising-based business model, 67% of all mobile developers live below the "app poverty line" of $500 per app, per month in revenue.
Some of this derives from insufficient marketing of apps, as I've covered before. But some of it is simply a factor of ignoring the web, the "biggest creator and destroyer of wealth the world has ever seen," as Mims styles it.
Apps are for dedicated interaction between a brand and its consumers. But most of us aren't willing to give all our time to one publication, one store, one experience. We want to dabble. We want to browse.
Developers who build app-like experiences for the web will benefit from this propensity to browse until we're willing to buy.
And Google, increasingly, will reward them.
Google just announced it is starting to test the labeling of websites as mobile-friendly and will even "experiment with using the mobile-friendly criteria as a ranking signal." In other words, those developers (and the retailers that love them) that invest in making killer mobile websites will see themselves jump up the PageRank scale.
This isn't to suggest that developers should ignore apps. Not at all. Rather, it's a suggestion that developers should emphasize both apps and mobile websites, because the latter is critical for capturing idle interest while the former helps brands to deeply engage already committed buyers.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.