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The iPhone App Store may have sold over 1.5 billion mobile applications since its launch last year, but Google’s isn’t going to waste much time on pesky downloaded apps. It sees bigger opportunities on the mobile horizon. Like tailoring its Chrome browser to the space. And while it may suit Google just fine to focus its efforts on mobile browsing, developers shouldn't abandon the native app space just yet.

For starters, mobile apps are bringing in a lot of money. Steve Jobs has estimated that the iPhone store is a $1 billion marketplace. And that's only Apple's 30% cut of the profits. Meanwhile RIM, Nokia, Palm, and Microsoft are all jumping on the bandwagon with application sales areas.

But Google seems to think this approach is antiquated. At the Mobilebeat conference in San Francisco Thursday, Google’s engineering VP Vic Gundotra, said “We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”

Gundotra thinks native apps only took off because the timing was not right for mobile browsers. But he said that “the rate of innovation in the browser [over the past 12 months] is surprising.”

It makes sense that Google wants to focus ondeveloping and executing its efforts in the mobile browser space. Whoever makes the best browser — or gets a bulk of users to browse with their product in mobile — stands to gain a lot of revenue.

But what about developers looking to extend their brand into mobile? Should they focus their efforts on making a better mobile browser experience and forgo the app space?

There are a host of reasons that developers shouldn't do that just yet. Mobile applications provide users — and businesses — with plenty of ROI that browsers won't bring in any time soon. Here are just a few:

Ease of Use
Mobile users are nothing if not impatient. Even with bookmarking and auto correct, typing information into a browser is cumbersome and annoying. Mobile apps help developers avoid relying on whatever technology the user happens to be using and all of its flaws. That will change when mobile browsers become more reliable. But not for awhile. For now, developers can have more say over how users integrate with their products by creating a dedicated app. 

Customization
The limitations of the mobile browser aside, there are a plethora of mobile apps that actually work better than their online counterparts. Case in point, Twitter.com isn't a difficult interface to translate into mobile, but how many people are actually checking Twitter on their cellphones? A proliferation of Twitter apps — like Tweetie, TwitterFon and BirdFeed — take a service used by millions and pair it down to a few basic features that a subset of users care about. The freedom of the native application allows developers to deliver a product exactly to users' specifications and mold the design to their needs.

Monetization
Which gets to this point. People are willing to pay for well-designed and useful mobile applications. In fact, they could be a lifeline for many companies bleeding dollars online. The New York Times, The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal have excellent mobile apps. If they can get a critical mass of users to pay to access content in the mobile space, they could stave off a good deal of the bleeding. And the easiest way to do that is get a full featured — and distinct — product working in the mobile space.

Repeat Business
Plenty of mobile apps may get discarded as soon as they're downloaded, but a smartphone user on the go is likely to use an app that's already located on his/her phone rather than go looking for information online. Especially when service is spotty and the information is pertinent to the person's immediate decision making.

Growing Marketshare
And making a smart mobile app implies that your business is smart about what it does. That's just generally good for business. And, if users get accustomed to using an app in the mobile space, they'll start looking for that product online and elsewhere. Useful apps from sites like Mint.com and Pandora have integrated those products into users' daily lives. And increased brand identification with their products online.

Of course it's important for Google to stake its claim on the browser space and work hard to ensure that web surfers get in the habit of using their product. But for the same reason, it makes sense for developers to keep on creating and working on great apps.

Meghan Keane

Published 17 July, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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