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Native app or mobile Web: Where do consumers spend more money?

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October 5, 2015

Ari Weil is vice president of product strategy at Yottaa

Ari Weil is vice president of product strategy at Yottaa

By Ari Weil

Much of the conversation about native mobile applications, especially as they contrast with the mobile Web, centers on utility and technical capabilities.

Native mobile apps are capable of 60 FPS scrolling list views, while the DOM structure of Web apps is not. Web apps have the benefits of familiar search indexing and hyperlink structures, while purely native mobile apps do not. And we can continue this argument on down the line into technobabble.

Lately, the argument has become more nuanced, as examples of hybrid apps have become more commonplace and, in some cases, very successful.

It seems like the black-and-white war between native and Web may be giving way to simmering disagreements in shades of gray.

Matt Asay at ReadWrite notes several examples of companies that are being apolitical about the whole thing and just making great apps, using whatever techniques are at their disposal.

But there is something else that is often left out of the capabilities-focused arguments: the voice of the masses. And I do not mean the masses of end-users or developers. I mean businesses: small, family, local, medium, even large – basically anything less than a superstar social media company or supersized national or global retailer.

A proletariat Web?
These businesses are left out because it is monopolies – or oligopolies, if we are being technical – that dominate the hype cycle for tech and retail and define the paradigm for aspiring developers, brands and strategists.

Take, for example, the stats by Flurry, gushed over by those already bullish on native, saying mobile users spend 86 percent of their time in apps.

On its face, it is a pretty damning report on the state of mobile Web. If you are running an online business and you see that figure alone, you are likely to conclude you need an app to be where your customers are.

But let us look at where most of that big native pie slice comes from.

Set aside games, which will never be a factor for mobile Web browsers.

Otherwise, it is nearly all categories with one dominant leader or a few major players.

Facebook monopolizes its own category of hyperscale social network. YouTube owns video. Twitter invented microblogging and still holds it in check. Those are the apps that suck up the lion’s share of people’s time.

Even the more splintered categories such as productivity and messaging are dependent on network effects that eventually lead to a small number of leaders.

Long story short: Native mobile apps are great for winner-take-all markets. But do you know where there is no monopoly?

Curtain industry
Bear with me for a second. Think about it. Practically everyone needs curtains, and has to shop for them now and again. They are easy to ship and, unlike clothes, there is little concern over fit.

Basically, they are a perfect item to buy online and avoid wasting a Saturday afternoon on a trip to the mall. So what mobile app would you use to buy curtains?

I could list out a number of common answers, from Amazon to Macy’s. But the point is there is not one instant, universal answer.

Curtains come from a number of different types of retailers, big and small, high-end and low. There is no monopoly. Most people faced with a need for curtains would go to the Web in search of competitive prices, selection, advice and reviews.

This scenario plays out every day for millions of products and thousands of businesses. The masses are on the Web.

This is what folks stuck in the hype cycle miss when they see overwhelming stats like the one we discussed before.

When users are seeking entertainment, connecting with friends, or killing time, they go to apps. When they are looking to spend money on actual things – the key behavior for most businesses – they use the Web.

The Web is still the conduit for search and inspiration and purchase. This is not just conjecture.

A survey published earlier this year found mobile apps had been relegated to the back burner for many retailers, as mobile Web shopping has grown steadily, while apps continue to be a tough sell.

The lukewarm performance of native apps in retail is a challenge that is compounded by the high costs of maintaining multiple native apps on top of the de rigueur mobile site.

On the other side of the vendor-user coin, the same results bear out.

One study found recently that seven in 10 smartphone users would rather use a mobile Web site than an app to make a purchase.

The ol’ Web creaks on
Yes, native has undeniable advantages in performance and certain utilities.

Yes, it is dominating time spent by end users.

And, of course, app developers and the companies that hire them will pull for #TeamNative, because they have experienced what awesome potential native apps have, as well as the shortcomings of Web experiences.

But the fact remains that you need a critical mass of market dominance and stickiness to drive people to an app again and again.

WHEN LOOKING FOR guidance, let us look beyond the successes of a few hotshot apps and think about the real economy and where it takes place: the Web.

Already, methods such as adaptive Web design, sequencing and Facebook’s React Native are starting to change preconceptions about the limitations of the mobile Web.

Let us keep pushing the envelope.

Advancing the user experience of the mobile Web will remain a relevant concern for some time to come. Native has its uses and Web has its uses – what is there to fight about?

Ari Weil is vice president of product strategy at Yottaa, a cloud-based acceleration platform in Waltham, MA. Reach him at aweil@yottaa.com.

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