Mobile: Why I think the balance will shift back from browsers to apps for commerce

By November 9, 2011Amazon, Mobile

I love using the Amazon iPhone app and this weekend I tweeted about how good the British Airways app is, but what I don’t want is to have an app on my phone for every retailer I use.  That would be a navigation nightmare – already I find myself swiping left and right through pages of application icons looking for the one I want, and the problem has actually got worse since I upgraded to iOS 5 and took the chance to halve the number of apps on my phone because the apps are in a different order now.  I had a short period of using folders, but I grew tired of the work needed to keep a folder structure organised.  I suspect most people are like that.

URLs and search are simply a better model for navigation, particularly as voice input is finally starting to get to ‘good enough’.

However, at this point the functionality available to apps exceeds that available via mobile browsers and so the trend is definitely still favour of apps over browsers.  In fact, I’m writing this post today after reading news that Walmart is releasing a new iPhone app.

That is actually a hassle for Walmart as well who have to worry about maintaining multiple versions of their iPhone app, and also to maintain apps on the other mobile platforms.  Once the mobile browsers are good enough it is much better for them to simply update their website.  Then they can roll out changes as quickly as they like without worrying about app store approvals and annoying their customers with too many upgrades.

My conclusion, therefore, is that both consumers and enterprises will gravitate back to the browser, and I think we will start to see that soon.

A bit of context.  There has been a lot written about app vs browser wars and as with many debates the discussion got polarised and everyone got bored before agreeing to say that there will be both apps and browsers.  I agree with that but think that the trend within that is interesting, i.e. having an opinion on whether the balance shifting in favour of apps or browsers, which is why I was careful in the title to this post to talk about the ‘balance’ between apps and browsers.

I have also limited the discussion to commerce.  I did that because the navigation point is more easily understood, and because commerce apps are relatively simple and don’t need to stretch the capabilities of the phone in ways that favour apps over browsers.  However, I think the balance will shift back to browsers does apply more generally.  Over the long run I think that even complex bleeding edge areas like games will see the balance shift back to the browser, just as we are seeing on the web.

  • Martin

    Interesting perspective, and one I broadly share Nic, however, do you not think the interface is about a user experience and as a result, voice will replace the way we search away from app vs browser? I’m expecting a raft of “apps” that amalgamate retailers for a “one stop shop” search by voice…..where your voice search will interact with many providers (it holding many apps or browser routes to providers), cutting down the apps you carry, but not returning you to browser based interaction.

  • Hi Martin – your point raises the question of the difference between apps and mobile websites. One obvious difference is the way you enter them – either via a browser or via clicking on an icon. If the navigation is via voice search then I guess we will get a list of results posted to us in something like a browser and we will choose the one we want. I suppose that choice then could take us to either an app or a website via an integrated set of results and from a consumer point of view it then wouldn’t make any difference.
    I guess in that scenario then Walmart etc will eventually start pointing people to websites because they are cheaper to build and maintain.
    That ‘something like a browser’ may not be much like today’s browsers, as you say – e.g. URLs may not be easily visible. I would still call it a browser though as it is navigating to a web page.

  • Hi Nic,
    The question, as ever, is what is the objective and how do we best serve the customer segments. 

    Mobile web – demand (search) driven mcommerce, one offs and infrequent purchases. Simpler customer journey.
    Mobile Apps – engaged regular purchasers.  Potentially greater CRM opportunities (notifications etc). Greater opportunity for enhanced product merchandising, social integration etc. More content related opportunities.Apps can serve a loyal regular purchasing audience.  Mobile web can serve a more irregular purchasing audience.  Both are valid strategies for mcommerce retailers and both should and do coexist.More strategic customer focussed  thinking – less development argument!

    Take care,

    Ross Sleight, Chief Strategy Officer, Somo

  • Thanks for the comment Ross – part of that is quite a retailer driven perspective. As a consumer I want a quick purchase process but I’d rather avoid the CRM.
    And a quick purchase process could easily come in the browser.