Mobility

Why native apps aren't really doomed, for now

Web zealots persist in believing native apps are dying. They're wrong, and here's why.

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Image: iStockphoto/Ridofranz

Let's be honest: Web zealots are sort of obnoxious. I should know, I've been one. I suppose in many ways I still am, believing, as I do, that the web will ultimately displace apps on mobile devices, just as it happened on the desktop.

But, since we're being honest, can we also acknowledge that we're nowhere near that point?

Gartner projects that, by 2019, 20% of brands will dump their native apps. Maybe. In the meantime, we need to quit the wishful thinking ("Why Native Apps Really are Doomed") and think through why, exactly, native apps persist even though every pro-web developer thinks they shouldn't. It's the experience, stupid.

Building awesome experiences

Yes, I know that some web apps ARE AMAZINGLY AWESOME!!!! This has always been alt-web's preferred argument. As Eric Elliott said, "It seems that web apps have a lingering reputation for being clunky," But he goes on to argue, there are "very cool apps that defy those obsolete stereotypes." Game. Set. Match!

SEE: No one downloads apps anymore: True or false?

Except...web apps have a lingering reputation for being clunky because web apps have a lingering proclivity for being clunky. Not all, of course. For example, I prefer Amazon's web experience to its app experience because the latter doesn't always work: Amazon doesn't want to share 30% with Apple for digital purchases, so the only place to buy them on your mobile device is through the just-as-functional-as-the-app website.

Amazon's app/web experience, however, is the exception. Some of what is possible in a native app still isn't feasible with the web. This will change over time, but it's boring truth today.

Why does native persist?

And yet, Elliott is correct to point out just how inefficient app marketing can be. I've highlighted this myself. Brands lose 20% of potential installs with each click required to install an app, and on average six clicks are needed. As Elliott concluded, "It's very expensive to acquire users for mobile apps, and even more expensive to acquire active users."

However, brands continue to do so. Are they simply stupid, or is there more to the native vs. web story?

SEE: Retail is fast becoming an app-eat-app world

The smart brands have learned to use web and apps to reach different audiences. Apps are for a brand's most committed customers; web is a top-of-the-funnel way to capture broad interest. In other words, for most brands most of the time, apps are the end of the customer journey, not the beginning. And for that end-of-the-journey experience, they're absolutely critical.

Where will the 20% go?

Even so, Gartner is likely right that 20% of brands will wave the white flag on their native apps by 2019. Those brands probably shouldn't have had native apps in the first place, and can easily replace them with Progressive Web Apps (which still have a ways to go, by the way). Even PWAs may not be necessary for such brands. For them, a mobile web-optimized site is really all they need.

That still leaves a massive marketplace for Apple and Google to monetize. Apple grossed $28 billion in 2016 with its App Store. That number will continue to grow, despite Gartner's projected 20% haircut. Media companies and others whose business depends more on a thin, broad distribution of users (think: ad-supported businesses) will go for PWAs even as retailers and others that depend on a web-and-app model will continue to invest in apps.

Native apps, in short, aren't doomed. Far from it. As brands get smart about the overall experiences they're trying to deliver, they'll find ample reason to support native apps, even as they get serious about the mobile web, too.

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About Matt Asay

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.

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