New Developments in the Apps vs. Mobile Web Smackdown

It’s no secret that “apps vs. mobile Web” is one of the heated debates in mobile development circles. This is also one of the points of friction in the growing battle between Google and Apple. Apple is pushing for an app-centric universe, while Google’s core search business compels it to create a mobile environment where the browser is the front door (see report we just released).

For developers, mobile Web sites give you more scalability (cross platform), freedom (no iTunes approval) and affordability. But apps give you more functionality by tapping into the native capabilities of smartphones, such as the accelerometer. Apps also give you more discoverability.

Apple has trained the emerging ranks of mobile elite to find and discover apps through the App Store. The design and searchability of the App Store has boosted this compared with, say, the far inferior experience of the Android marketplace. Some have argued the latter is on purpose, to steer users toward Web apps.

Going Rogue

But the point is that the App Store experience contrasts with the mobile Web — more of a crapshoot involving opening the Web browser and navigating to site. In the mobile Web’s early days of adoption, that wild west paradigm (similar to the desktop Web) isn’t as welcoming as the warm and fuzzy iTunes store.

But it’s getting there. Google — again a big proponent of the mobile Web — is leading the charge. The latest example is the HTML5-rich version of YouTube (m.youtube.com). In short, it blows the iPhone native YouTube app out of the water, including searchability, presentation and streaming speeds (video intro here).

Much of this has to do with the fact that Apple created YouTube’s native app that comes default on every iPhone. It was created with the first-generation iPhone and built for the inferior EDGE network. YouTube saw much more potential, so it went around Apple to create this new optimized Web version.

Again, one of the mobile Web’s advantages is freedom. But what about the discoverability disadvantages mentioned above? It’s working on that too. You see, one of the dirty little secrets of Web apps on the iPhone is that you can create a homescreen icon that looks and feels just like an app.

This is really just a glorified bookmark; tapping it will open the Safari browser and land you right on that page. Smart developers have even designed little icons (Apple default is a tiny screenshot of the bookmarked page). This is nothing new.

Clear and Present

But what I saw for the first time in the YouTube app is a prompt to do this. See the screenshots below that guide users through the process of setting up one of these homescreen icons. Without this simple prompt, it’s not a very obvious process that users are inclined to initiate on their own.

Putting it more front and center should be something we see more often from developers. More important, it should cause user behavior to evolve and become more aware of mobile Web sites. This user behavior, in addition to evolving capabilities and functionality, could be a boon for those in the Web app camp.

This will also have larger ramifications for the broader Google vs. Apple share battle for mobile users, and for what BIA/Kelsey forecasts will be a $3.1 billion U.S. mobile ad market by 2013.

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Update: It appears Google had already been doing this with the Google Buzz Web app. Expect to see it much more in Google Web apps and those of other copycats.

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