Musings on the Mobile Web: Commerce, Apps, and More

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Ever since I started contributing to the TechCrunch empire, my inbox has received a pretty steady stream of pitches for new (and not-so-new) products and services. Some of them merit a post, but the overwhelming majority of these emails are skimmed and then deleted. Sometimes, though, I’ll engage the sender in a discussion about the product or service they’re pitching, asking about details excluded from the pitch. A couple such discussions have taken place lately, and they’re sufficiently similar that they got me thinking about the bigger picture.

I get regular updates about new mobile websites from major brand names. Most of these sites are powered by Usablenet and the announcements themselves are comparatively uninteresting. But the most recent email from Usablenet claims that they’re the power behind the mobile web’s fastest commerce sites. The salient paragraph from the email states

Usablenet, a global technology leader for mobile and multichannel customer engagement, announced today that its platform powers 3 of the top 4 fastest m-commerce sites in the U.S. and the top 4 fastest m-commerce sites in the UK, as identified by Keynote Systems’ March 29th Mobile Commerce Performance Index. The Internet and mobile cloud monitoring authority reported that among the mobile sites with the fastest download speeds are StrandBooks.com, Dell, Walgreens, Victoria’s Secret, Sunglass Hut in the U.S. and Tesco, Next, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis in the UK — all of which are powered by Usablenet’s platform.

Note that the announcement only claims that these sites are the fastest in terms of load times, not that they’re actually making many mobile web-based sales. This raised a number of questions in my mind: are people actually buying stuff from mobile-optimized websites, and if so how does that compare to the volume of sales executed through dedicated mobile apps?

After some back-and-forth, I got some interesting answers:

  • according to comScore, 36 percent of Americans and 29 percent of Europeans browsed the mobile web in December 2010, with access through an application reaching 34 percent of Americans and 28 percent of Europeans. Across regions, mobile browsing and application usage is growing in the range of 7-9 percentage points per year.
  • UK users prefer to access the mobile internet using a browser rather than an ‘app’ (70% versus 55%) according to a study by Orange.
  • 29% of mobile phone users made at least one purchase on their mobile phone in 2010, more than double the number in 2009. — Oracle
  • 20% of the UK’s top 100 retailers have a mobile site — One Iota (Jan. 2011)
  • 22% of retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 500 report having an m-commerce site or app, which is 110 of 500 — Internet Retailer (March 2011)
  • 42% of UK shoppers have used their mobile phones while shopping offline, while 16% used it to compare prices with other stores. — RichRelevance / Bazaarvoice

The third bullet point sounded a little disingenuous to me: how many of those mobile purchases were one-offs, like someone experimenting with buying a movie ticket through the Fandango app just because they could? This led to some additional back-and-forth, and the following data was proffered:

  • Garnet Hill (U.S.) reported a 300% increase in mobile sales between the time they launched their optimized mobile site in December 2010 and February 2011.
  • Within the first 3 months after launch, the Marks & Spencer (UK) mobile site received over 1.2 million visitors, with more than 10 million combined page views. Proving the willingness of consumers to make purchases from their mobile phones, the mobile site experienced over 13,000 orders in just 90 days.
  • ASOS’s (UK) mobile revenues topped £1m in the UK during December, double the etailer’s expectations.
  • John Lewis (UK) reported in January 2011 that it will launch transactional mobile apps after its mobile site saw a 50% increase in mobile traffic since launch in October. Overall online traffic to John Lewis in the last quarter rose significantly, roughly 30-40% year on year, but mobile traffic has risen almost 50%, according to Jonathan Brown, John Lewis’s head of online selling. “Conversion from visitor to sales is now 20% since the launch of the mobile site,” he said.
  • Prior to launching on mobile with Usablenet in November, Juicy Couture’s in-house mobile site produced only 4% of its total Web traffic and less than 1% of its online sales. Since the relaunch, the retailer’s m-commerce site has generated 15% of digital traffic and 6% of online sales.

Obviously all of this is coming to me from a biased source: the marketing folks for Usablenet. But it’s still interesting to evaluate, and to know that people actually are using the mobile web more and more to buy goods and services.

At the same time that I was exchanging emails with Usablenet’s PR rep, I was also pitched a story idea on behalf of Tim McLaughlin, President of interactive agency Siteworx, about their “plans to design the next generation of mobile-optimized websites specifically for iPad 2.” Normally, I immediately delete these kinds of pitches, but for some reason I responded to this one:

I’m all for the mobile web, but I think Apple has a very different opinion. They’ve made it clear time and again that their vision of Internet consumption on iOS devices is through apps. It’s easy to see why: they make gobs of money from their app store, so they want to continue to drive users through this channel to secure their revenue stream.

I think discussions of the mobile web get much more traction when you talk about non-iOS devices.

To my surprise, this initiated a very interesting discussion. One part of the attempted rebuttal to my comment was:

Even more interesting, I didn¹t realize that according to Steve Job’s figures from the iPad 2 announcement, Apple paid out only about 2 billion dollars to iOS developers, which means they only took in about 850 million (not peanuts, but kind of when compared to the billions and billions they’re making on hardware). And that doesn’t include the costs of the app review infrastructure and developer assistance.

I replied:

I’m sure a compelling argument can be made for the position that Apple is not hostile to an open mobile web, and that iOS apps are just one part of Apple’s overall mobile strategy. I’m extremely skeptical of this, because everything that Apple does screams “We know what’s best for you”, and an open mobile web simply isn’t consistent with that fanatical devotion to controlling all aspects of the user experience.

The follow-up I received was considerably more thorough than I was expecting. I share it here in its entirety, because it’s a lot of good food for thought:

Q: What’s the Future: Apps or Mobile Websites?

A: I can really only see one plausible end-game scenario for the great “native applications vs. mobile optimized websites” battle—and that’s a true Web/app hybrid entity.

Web will never kill the native app industry so long as Apple and Google have a vested interest in it. Why include Google? Because the main benefit to Apple isn’t the revenue it generates from app sales (which is relatively insignificant), but rather the “Microsoft effect”—i.e., the more proprietary apps a user has downloaded on her mobile device, the higher the cost and hassle of platform switching. So apps make a ton of sense for monopolistic-minded companies like Apple and Google, who might never corner the mobile platform market single-handedly, but—as they joust—are certainly making it tough for market entrants to compete.

(In time, I do expect Google to win that battle outright, because the open Android system will attract incomparable innovation from so many different players.)

Now at the same time, the free mobile Web isn’t going anywhere either. If you look at the dismal post-download use rates for most apps, and then at the soaring use rates for mobile website viewing, there can be little doubt users prefer Web for the vast majority of their corporate interactions.

Likewise, it makes sense for the dominant force here—Apple—to straddle the app/Web fence as much as possible (that is, promoting apps but supporting open Web standards much more than Microsoft ever did, simply because Apple doesn’t have Microsoft’s 80-90% monopoly—and they likely never will unless they shift focus away from premium products to kill competitors at the lowest price points).

Q: So That Means We’re Headed Toward a Hybrid App/Web Entity?

A: The line between mobile apps and websites isn’t as clear as people think. What’s happened is that Web has established nearly all of the protocols—even for apps—at this point.

So a lot of apps contain a lot of Web technology. And if you peel back the cover on lots of applications, you’ll find they’re actually just using Web browsers underneath the hood. The app is just a wrapper for the Web.

In the earlier days, this wasn’t the case, because browsers weren’t as sophisticated—and developers weren’t sophisticated enough to take advantage of them. But most of the cross-platform mobile development toolkits today are leveraging browser technology, in no small part because JavaScript (the most pervasive coding language on earth) is Web-only. In contrast, the languages employed on mobile platforms aren’t as well known.

So if you want to make a development platform with the widest possible appeal, you’re going to use Web technologies because they’re well understood and well distributed.

Q: Then Why Bother With the App Wrapper?

A: Two reasons: You can store data natively, and people like clicking the button on their phone instead of typing the URL.

But the catch is, you can actually store data in the browser using HTML 5. It’s just that people aren’t used to it. They don’t think it’s possible, so developers don’t do it. Basically, we don’t want to creep people out with all the stuff we know about them on the Web.

For example, given any basic form on a website, we could probably fill out most of the information for you, based on data in your cookies. But we don’t do it, because we know you’d find it creepy and invasive.

But people are more amenable to that sort of thing when it’s something they’ve actively downloaded onto their device as an app. So it’s all about user preferences.

Certainly the mobile web is here to say. Apps are here to stay, too. There’s going to be a lot of change in the years ahead, as mobile Internet access continues to get easier and easier, while simultaneously the technologies powering our devices and sites get more and more sophisticated.

I don’t have a clear takeaway from all of this, at this time, but I thought MobileCrunch readers would benefit from these discussions. Share your thoughts in the comments.