In the App Economy, Does the Mobile Browser Matter?

Mobile broadband consumption shows no signs of slowing, but the way people access the mobile Web could be changing. Market researcher Gartner (IT) has released a report called 10 Mobile Technologies to Watch in 2010.

Two points make me wonder if and when mobile software applications will render the mobile browser less relevant. While there isn't yet an application to complement every mobile Web site, I recently realized that nearly all the software on my smartphone uses the mobile Web. As a result, I'm accessing the Internet on my handheld far less often with the browser.

According to Gartner's report, by 2011 more than 85% of handsets shipped worldwide will include some form of browser, and app stores will be the primary (and, in some cases, the only) way to distribute applications to smartphones and other mobile devices.

Apps such as Seesmic, FiOS Mobile, and Remember the Milk allow me to connect with people, devices, or data over the Web. And they do so in a way that's more pleasant to use than a via a Web site. I could read or send tweets through the actual Twitter site, but I use an app for visual appeal and ease of use, which means the software has shifted my mobile Web usage away from the browser. The same scenario applies to Remember the Milk, which I use to manage my tasks. There's a mobile-friendly site available, but the RTM app is far more responsive and offers me a better user experience.

Browsers Can't Compete

These apps are bite-size chunks of the mobile Web. The small bits of software are designed specifically for mobile use—often targeted for particular platforms—which brings a level of navigation and enjoyment not found in a browser. Mature mobile browsers, such as those based on WebKit, are great, but I have yet to find a mobile Web site that performs better than a comparable application written expressly for a given smartphone.

To be sure, one person's experience doesn't make a trend. Yet I'm not the only one downloading or using mobile apps. Apple's iTunes store crossed the 3 billion download mark in January, and many of those apps work without requiring a Web site visit.

Google's Android operating system is also gaining market share—perhaps as a result of sharing advertising revenue with handset makers—which is spawning a surge in Android software.

Where Problems Appear

Of course, if there are more apps accessing the Web from different phone platforms, that could create problems. In his report "Sizing Up the Global App Economy," Chetan Sharma says that "fragmentation"—requiring developers to tailor their software for various mobile operating systems—is only getting worse. A mobile Web browser can address that problem and is well suited for applications such as social networking, he says.

That's a valid point, and one that I experienced firsthand when I moved from the iPhone to an Android device for my primary handset earlier this year. Consumers must wait for an application to appear on their handset platform. Until then, they're reliant on the browser as a workaround—often with less functionality, such as geo-location or camera integration.

More or better functionality in mobile clients leads to more usage and engagement, which creates other problems. For example, mobile applications can further increase bandwidth demand. We've already seen this result in a problem—and a solution of sorts—with carriers asking Facebook to adjust its Web platform in hopes of reducing bandwidth needs. As a result, Facebook began limiting the resolution of mobile photos on its Web site. As mobile apps continue to improve in both quantity and appeal, we could see the same adjustments in our mobile software.

Perhaps I'm in the minority here when it comes to mobile Web usage in the apps and the browser. I certainly still use the browser on my phone—there's isn't an app for everything just yet. But I'm using it less often as I find apps with functionality and the ties to the Web that I need. Is your mobile Web usage trending the same, or am I simply an app-aholic?

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