A future with fewer mobile apps?

A future with fewer mobile apps?
Tech Corner

POSTED: Sunday, July 29, 2012 - 9:30pm

UPDATED: Sunday, July 29, 2012 - 10:07pm

How many apps do you have on your smartphone? If that's an unwieldy number today, expect it to slim down considerably in the future.

ABI Research recently predicted that in coming years, smartphone users around the world will be downloading and using fewer and fewer apps.

What will they be doing instead? Using the mobile Web more and more, according to senior analyst Aapo Markkanen.

In the early days of smartphones and tablets, downloadable apps dominated the mobile experience -- mainly because browsing the Web via mobile devices, on slower 2G and 3G carrier data networks, was a painful process which often yielded clunky usability and unreliable results.

Since then, the mobile Web (indeed, Web technology overall) as well as mobile devices and wireless networks have all evolved considerably.

Now it's possible to do many things easily and well with HTML5 and mobile Web browsers -- things that previously would work well only in apps. And mobile users don't have to download, install, or remember to launch any software in order to enjoy the benefits of "Web apps."

Downloadable apps from news and magazine publishers are especially likely to become relics of the digital past, according to ABI:

"The decision by the Financial Times to pull the plug on its iOS app and bet instead on HTML5 can be seen as a hint of what is to come next."

Markkanen noted that the speedy decline of news and media apps will cause the overall app market to take a hit.

"Since news and media content already account for a large share of smartphone usage and are likely to play an even bigger role in later adopters' usage, changes in this segment alone will make subscribers on average download fewer native apps," he said.

That's not surprising, since news and magazine apps mainly deliver content rather than interactive functionality. It's cheaper, simpler, and more reliable to deliver content via the Web than to build and maintain software apps which users must then discover, download, and remember to run.

Also, many news organizations have been facing especially dire economic challenges for years now. Switching from downloadable, platform-specific apps to Web apps allows them to serve more users with a single, simple product.

This could present problems for app- and platform-dependent publishing strategies such as The Daily -- a big-budget, subscription-based publication from News Corporation, available only via an Apple iPad app.

However, certain types of mobile apps probably will remain popular.

According to ABI: "In many app categories, like games and most utilities, the Web will probably never catch up with the native app opportunity in terms of user experience."

One thing to keep an eye on is how the publishing industry evolves. Many packages of content that contain interactive content -- especially e-books, resource guides, and online courses or learning modules -- might grow more sophisticated.

It might make more sense for these to be deployed in a more app-like fashion, especially to support use when not connected to the Internet or a carrier data network.

So while "apps" as we've known them so far may be on the decline, app-like properties will probably proliferate into future generations of digital content, services, and experiences.

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of Amy Gahran.

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