Why The Mobile App Will Die

andrei“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Andrei Dunca, co-founder and chief technology officer at LiveRail.

Just a few years ago, consumers used numerous apps on their desktop computers, such as Winamp for music, Windows Media Player for watching videos and Thunderbird for email.

At the time, consumers interacted with desktop apps largely because browsers weren’t very advanced or powerful, or they lacked robust support for a scripting language and development libraries.

Eventually, as browsers grew stronger and faster, and as the underlying infrastructure for coding a webpage became more robust, apps increasingly moved from their place as native desktop apps to the browser. This shift enabled portability since developers were no longer required to build individual versions for Windows, OSX and every Linux flavor, which sped the time to market.

Today, consumers spend most of their time in a browser, which has become the real operating system for most widely used apps used for music, video, email, social and instant messaging.

I believe mobile will follow a similar trend within the next three years.

The Issue With Mobile

The current mobile app-development ecosystem is chaotic because most apps are native and not based on the browser provided by the mobile operating system. Developing an app in Objective-C for iOS is very different from programming in Java for Android. To make matters worse, Android is very fragmented, with frustrating differences between the various Android iterations. And frameworks that allow developers to program once and deploy on several different mobile operating systems don’t really work well for all uses.

Mobile app time to market is considerably slow and extremely expensive. Additionally, updates are triggered by the client and cannot be pushed by the app vendor. At any given moment, for example, several versions of the same app, including some with bugs or larger issues, can live on millions of devices, thus making support a huge pain point.

From the online advertising perspective, this status quo generated a whole new vertical, which shouldn’t even truly exist: mobile advertising. In reality, mobile advertising should just be one of the traditional advertising verticals, such as rich media, video or search, but in a different screen size and optimized for a mobile device. But because mobile advertising must work with native mobile apps, the mobile advertising technology often relies on platform-specific, vendor-proprietary software development kits. These SDKs generate a lot of integration friction and drastically slow the release cycles of mobile apps, making this space extremely inefficient.

The Mobile Ad Solution

To counter these mobile ad inefficiencies, IAB, the organization overseeing current advertising standards, developed MRAID, a set of guidelines and standards for integrating mobile advertising SDKs into native mobile apps. However, not every mobile app or advertising SDK developer follows the guidelines and standards, leading to ever-present inconsistencies.

If the mobile app paradigm follows the same evolution as the desktop app – and it will, since hardware is getting more powerful, which mobile browsers will leverage – we’ll certainly witness a transition of native apps into mobile browser-based apps. This transition will eliminate all of the challenges and inefficiencies I described, and will finally streamline mobile advertising integrations and execution.

When that happens, mobile advertising will finally operate on the same well-known industry principles of desktop browser-based advertising. At that point, the industry will only talk about screen size, with advertising integration and execution that will be operating system-agnostic and portable.

So What?

This transition will carry serious implications for companies like Twitter. The company recently acquired MoPub for $350 million and is clearly betting big on mobile.

Within a few years, we will likely be in a place where browsers, such as Safari, Chrome and IE, will be the ultimate winners for advertising across devices.

Companies like MoPub, Millenial or Velti, which is already in trouble, will potentially be nothing more than an afterthought in the mobile ad space because there won’t be an industry for them anymore. Mobile ad networks may no longer be needed because mobile could be seen as just another screen.

Follow Andrei Dunca (@andreidunca), LiveRail (@LiveRail) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. I understand where Mr. Dunca is going with this, but I believe phone screens are just too small for users to use browsers exclusively. Mobile apps are more convenient in that aspect because they cover the whole screen once they’re opened.
    However, if phablets prevail, Mr. Dunca could be right.

    • That would only require a mobile-optimised design (which actually many sites already have).
      I only see two drawbacks to the current setups.

      First, browsers still do not (or only partially) support all the fancy visual effects you can achieve with a native application, and which are particularly important with touch applications.

      And second, it is not only visual effects, a lot of functionality you can do with a native application (and expect it to do) simply cannot be done (yet) with a browser application (to use a fancier term than “dynamic website” 😉 ). But this is the same issue you have on desktops and why Winamp (to take an example from the article) is still uncontested.

    • Ram Teodosio

      For iOS Safari, if you save the web app in the homepage, it provides the same real estate as an app. The browser controls are disabled and only the web app is visible. I imagine similar functionalities in other mobile OS as well.

      There are several upside to this:

      1) Code once; view in multiple devices
      2) Consolidated ad buying between browser based ads and mobile ads. From an adops perspective, this is a huge time suck right now and a huge liability to advertisers, publishers and agencies.
      3) Openness, since it bypasses the native ecosystem like Apple’s iAds.

      Great article and I imagine this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. I’d agree with the article. It is generally surprising to see such a renaissance of native applications on mobile devices. In particularly of types of applications which could be easily realised as “dynamic website” (or web application 😉 ).

    Exactly this has been the trend on the desktop but some reason on mobile devices, time suddenly sort of went backwards to pre-web times.

  3. No surprise that I fully agree with Andrei here. Mobile Apps make sense for some interactions but not for most. Especially not for websites. There is no compelling reason to have an App for the vast majority of web sites or interactions. I use the Geico Claims app as an example. Who the heck is going to download an App from Geico just in the off chance that you’re in an accident and want to submit a claim without talking to or interacting with a human? Why do I need an App do replace what I can do in a browser or even on a call? And perhaps more importantly why should the advertiser spend hundreds of thousands to build an app for use by tiny fraction of their customers?

    With responsive design and HTML5 it makes far more sense to focus on your site’s design than to waste the time and money to build and distribute an App for a narrow market, device and time-frame. Most Apps for websites are just dumbed down versions of the site and are superfluous.

    In my mind it’s the companies like OnSwipe and PadSquad who are currently best positioned int his space. For they remove the need to develop a device-specific App instead they provide a proxy for digestion based on the current user device. Great for publishers who do not need to spend the money or resources, and great for the consumer who do not want or need to download and install yet another app but would prefer a more refined user experience.

    Ad dollars will flow to Mobile faster when ad formats become scalable and have polarity. Currently to build custom HTML5 ad units specific to a particular SDK is not scalable nor cost effective. Why should you have to develop multiple version or the same creative? A total waste of time and money.

    Companies like Addroid do solve a lot of this problem by removing the need to develop creative specific to a device, instead allowing creative teams to create ads that are visually appealing without the worry or need to hard code to specific placements or devices. Yeah Addroid!

    As Andrei points out, the mobile market will explode when the ads delivered into and onto mobile devices are the same ads that are created for all other placements. Parity in messaging, parity in design and parity in performance will open up the entire mobile ecosystem to the efficiencies that are well established in other aspects of digital ad creation and trafficking and allow for better ads to be delivered at scale.

  4. Sabotosh

    This argument makes perfect sense from a technology standpoint. Sure HTML5 and browsers will evolve and the user will no doubt get the same rich experience in Mobile Browsers.

    Now the other part – if you think of Apps as a container not a technology.

    How does breaking out of the App container help Smartphone manufactures, Telco providers, Apple, Google, Governments regulators, and all the other established players who would like more control / like more money from the way we access content?

    Closed systems are very good at protecting business models, and protecting users from malware, and collecting user data.

    I like Ubunto and Firefox too – but I don’t see how any technology is going to make a difference here. It’s too late… the App container is here to stay…

    Hey remember starting in 2014 it will be illegal to unlock your phone in the US – even after your contract has expired. You want to redirect a 10 digit number to Skype – you need to pay a Telco for a phone plan. You want ESPN – you have to pay for 100 other channels. It’s not technology that is the issue.

  5. Garrett MacDonald

    disagree. Will change over time but there’s no way apps will be obsolete in 3 years

  6. Kendall Helmstetter Gelner

    To me, it seems like the argument made here kind of boils down to “Native apps will go away, because it’s best for advertising”.

    But I don’t think that’s really what will happen – consider the first example given, music:

    “Just a few years ago, consumers used numerous apps on their desktop computers, such as Winamp for music…”

    Well what did users go to after WinAmp? Either iTunes or dedicated hardware players, the browser never really entered in to things as a music player. Nor did it change to browsers as people evolved to use various smartphones for playing music.

    It’s true that during that time some things migrated over to wider browser use. But I wouldn’t even say most; lets look at your list:

    “music, video, email, social and instant messaging.”

    As examples of the kinds of things people do in browsers. Really? It seems like only one of those things is significantly done in the browser; video. And that’s only because YouTube has been resistant to creating a good API for apps, and even there iTunes has very heavy video use. For everything else, there are scores of apps and growing – email especially hot at the moment, social accounts like Twitter have always leaned a lot on apps and Facebook is more and more.

    The reason you see this ebb and flow is very simple. Companies developing software prefer browser based (or the equivalent) “it’ll run on anything” software. But users overwhelmingly prefer well-thought out applications tailored to the system they are running on. So what happens is, someone creates some very popular software that will run all over the place (like Twitter at the start for example). Then you see scores of custom hardware and OS specific applications that refine the experience for specific devices, which a large group of people switch over to, away from the browser. So the cycle repeats, again and again.

    One other aspect you are forgetting is that developing a really, really good application for the Web suffers the same problems Android does, of significant fragmentation of what users will be running the application on. It’s a lot easier to take an idea to one dedicated hardware platform like the iPhone, and see if the market even likes it. For that reason alone I can’t see the iPhone or native apps in general declining anytime soon.