Why Android Will Win the Mobile App Wars

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What if the company that made your computer forced you to use only their web browser and email application? (Remember, Microsoft was prosecuted for less than this). What if that company could dictate what software – of any type – other companies were allowed to make for your computer, what you were allowed to install and where you could buy it? What if these restrictions were only vaguely defined, then enforced in a totally ad-hoc way, on a case-by-case basis – after the software was already built?

Obviously that would be crazy, and obviously I’m talking about the iPhone.

After a week of high-profile App Store snafus (Google Voice, Ninja Words), there’s a bona fide Apple backlash a-brewin’. Leading the charge are the likes of Michael Arrington and Om Malik, who have each made a very public point of ditching their iPhones, and Jason Calacanis who wrote an epic 5-part case against apple. Last week’s hubbub was even enough to warrant a response from Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP of product marketing.

The iTunes App Store process is broken in all kinds of ways, but few people question its basic premise: an app for almost anything, and a distribution model that (a number of hiccups notwithstanding) guarantees big bucks for Apple and gives developers access to a high-profile storefront. It’s proven to be such a cash cow that everybody is getting on the app store bandwagon. There’s the Android Market, Blackberry App World, Nokia’s Ovi Store, the Sony Ericsson Application Shop, plus stores from carriers like Vodafone, Verizon and who knows how many others. The game has changed. It’s all about mobile apps now.

Think about it though. In today’s web-powered world, imagine if you had to install a special app on your computer to use Facebook, plus another one for Twitter, another for YouTube, another for getting weather reports, another for checking your stock portfolio, etc. Multiply this situation by all the different mobile operating systems and form factors, and it’s essentially the same problem that has plagued mobile from the beginning. On the positive side I suppose, there’s no shortage of work for mobile developers when there are a half dozen different Facebook apps that need to be made.

Chris Messina posted a fantastic and provocative piece on his blog last week entitled Steve Jobs Hates the App Store wherein he argues that “the iPhone has always been about the web” and that:

…development for the iPhone platform is a distraction. It’s taking our eyes off the ball, and ignoring the bigger shift that’s happening beneath our feet. Developing iPhone apps now means postponing a better and more capable web until later, because so much energy is fixated on the cool whiz-bang effects in the iPhone platform that just haven’t been implemented in browsers… yet.

It’s like going back to the days of the CD-ROM, before the web as we know it existed.

Messina sees the future, and the future is the web. The only things he sees standing between the anachronistic, walled-garden, app-store-filled present and the glorious web-powered future are a good discovery paradigm (he compares the iTunes App Store to the “Yahoo! directory phase” of the web) and current browser limitations (e.g. Safari for iPhone can’t talk to the iPhone’s GPS or accelerometer).

I would argue, however, that the web has already given us a much more powerful discovery paradigm than iTunes. It’s called Google (there’s also Amazon and BestBuy and all the other places you shop for software, music, etc. online).

I would also argue that a third big missing piece is a business model. The most reliable way to make money from iPhone apps is to charge a one-time fee for downloading them. Ad-supported apps don’t pay for themselves, and Apple doesn’t yet support a subscription model (or maybe they do – various sources conflict).

Once the app store bubble pops and we move to web apps, the one-time fee model will have to go away. Mobile ads will probably be a bigger market by then, but it still won’t be enough to support most services. So SaaS will probably become the dominant business model for mobile web apps. Many could be sold as value-adds to existing (desktop) web services. The death of the one-time fee model would be OK with developers, but Apple would lose their 30% cut. They’re bound to resist and push back against any big shift toward web apps, but resistance will prove futile.

Which brings me to my final point, and the title of this post.

Despite all the hullabaloo over Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice iPhone app, Google themselves took it in stride. And it seems they might simply relaunch Google Voice as a web app.

Vic Gundotra, Google Engineering vice president and developer evangelist told the Mobilebeat Conference last month that the web had won and users of mobile phones would get their information and entertainment from browsers in the future. He suggested it wouldn’t be cost effective for Google to support all the different native mobile platforms – from iPhone to Blackberry to Windows Mobile and all the flavors of Nokia. In his words:

“What we clearly see happening is a move to incredibly powerful browsers. Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning. We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”

In a nutshell, Chrome for mobile is why Android will win. The Google Chrome mission statement is tailor-made for mobile. This bit in particular resonated with me:

To most people, it isn’t the browser that matters. It’s only a tool to run the important stuff – the pages, sites and applications that make up the web. Like the classic Google homepage, Google Chrome is clean and fast. It gets out of your way and gets you where you want to go.

Nowhere is it more important for browsers to “get out of your way” than on small screens. When Google makes a mobile browser powerful enough to run real applications, then native mobile apps will die a merciful death. And what would constitute “powerful enough?”

  • The browser would have to talk to native device functions like the camera, accelerometer and GPS
  • The browser “chrome” (pun intended) would have to almost completely disappear in favor of the application currently running.
  • Irrelevant browser functions would ideally go away (e.g. the browser’s main menu gets overtaken by the web app’s main menu).
  • The browser would have to retain user and session information better than today’s mobile browsers do
  • The browser would have to have to be faster, more stable and basically feel “smoother” in the way it performs

Two parting thoughts:

First, there will always be a place for native apps. Games and other apps that don’t require any connectivity, and that involve a more “immersive” experience will probably always be better as fully-native apps. But 90% of the apps in the iTunes store are really web apps in disguise.

Second, borrowing from Winston Churchill, I’ll say the iPhone is the worst phone out there, except for all the others I’ve tried. Seriously though, I really like my iPhone, and I’m happy with the apps I’ve installed. I’m not giving these up anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean I think this paradigm makes sense.

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© 2009 Shawn Smith | Creative Commons.
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