If you run an interactive team, marketing agency, or VC firm you’ve considered developing or backing development of a mobile app. It would be silly if you hadn’t. Since 2008, the year the App Store opened, over 100 billion apps have been downloaded and more than 4 million apps are currently available in the App and Google Play stores. So you could be forgiven for assuming that developing a mobile app is a cost of entry for running a business these days.
But if this is a decision you’re facing right now you have very good reason to doubt the value of incurring the expense. Not because you don’t need a useful mobile presence, you do no matter what your business offering, but because requiring customers to install an app introduces potentially unnecessary customer experience hurdles. I know unless I think I will use a service every day I won’t go through the trouble of downloading an app, no matter how many times I get asked (looking at you, Yelp). If anything, my focus on my smartphone has been to get rid of apps I downloaded rather than adding new ones to reduce clutter.
According to comScore’s latest mobile app report, most US smartphone owners download zero apps in a typical month, and year over year downloads have declined 20%. Add to that the very real impact of Google’s recent decision to penalize websites that push mobile web traffic to download an app, and the Android release last year that provided enhanced mobile web experiences and taking a big pause before investing in development of a new iOS or Android app is more than warranted.
All that being said, there’s no denying that online mobile experiences are dominated by apps. Last year TechCrunch reported that 85% of time consumers spent on smartphones was spent in apps. But of that time, only 5 apps saw heavy use. Which apps took up that time varied from user to user, but for most that dominance in mobile device usage is driven by the most popular social network, email and news apps.
As the comScore graph below shows, although most of us have a wealth of apps accessible on our phones by and large we use fewer than five on any given day. After that no apps, on average, take more than 3% of our online smartphone or tablet time. So unless you’re lucky enough to be one of those top five performing app providers, odds are your app isn’t getting much airplay.
If your app is not or is not expected to become one of the top apps for your audience then the choice to invest or not in developing an iOS and/or Android app should give you pause. Of course that doesn’t at all mean that you don’t engage with your audiences in the mobile space, just that you can consider foregoing something that conventional wisdom still assumes is required.
Return of the Mobile Web
The mobile web has come a long way since the first days of smartphones, when, before the Apple App Store was introduced, Steve Jobs was eager for owners of his new iPhone to get online. Back then mobile browsing platforms didn’t provide the experiential opportunities that last year’s the latest releases of Android and iOS offer. Now developers have the ability to deliver experiences as immersive and flexible as your favorite apps through the mobile web, and have just one platform to maintain rather than two for iOS and Android.
Last year Benedict Evans summarized the business driver for choosing native over web to just one question: “do people want to put your icon on their home screen? If the answer is Yes, go native. If No, go web.” Recently one major brand, Patagonia, decided to shut down the iPhone app they launched in 2010, stating that “now our website is beautiful and easy to use on all mobile web browsers” and inviting users to delete the app from their devices.
There’s no question that new business solutions will continue to be introduced that warrant a dedicated app to facilitate transactions, provide offline use, and to take advantage of native experience opportunities. But those experiential advantages alone, such as they still are, no longer justify the expense.