A high-profile VC and a well-known mobile application developer were recently involved in a debate about whether to build for Android or Apple mobile platforms. The answer, it turns out: “it depends,” “both,” or “simply build for the mobile browser.” The third answer is the correct one for most developers.
App developers and companies have different goals, so why follow the same advice?
Well-respected VC Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square Ventures, has suggested that developers interested in the largest user base should invest as much, if not more, in developing for Android as they do for iOS. Wilson justifies his recommendation by looking back at the desktop operating system market: “I believe the mobile OS market will play out very similarly to Windows and Macintosh, with Android in the role of Windows.”
Arment’s advice is likely to resonate with individual developers hoping to directly monetize their mobile application either by selling the application or through in-application purchases. Over time, however, you shouldn’t bet against Android closing the gap versus Apple along the lines of development economics, payment ease-of-use, and fragmentation.
On the other hand, a company that sells goods or services that are exposed through the mobile application, but does not monetize the application itself, needs to pay more attention to Wilson’s advice. If the vast majority of a bank or retailer’s prospective users are going to use an Android device for banking or shopping, the company had better offer a compelling experience on that platform.
But why choose between developing for Android or Apple?
Build mobile Web browser applications
It’s amazing to watch companies that don’t rely on directly monetizing their mobile application invest in native mobile applications for iOS or Android. In a rush to be the first to market, these companies optimized for a device rather than following the cross-platform and cross-browser Web application strategy they’ve used on the desktop for the better part of a decade.
For example, if TweetDeck, which is best known for its thick-desktop Twitter client, can see the light and deliver the same user experience in a Web browser across desktop and mobile devices, chances are your company’s Web application can also evolve into a mobile Web application without paying the cost of device-specific implementations.
The key element of TweetDeck’s announcement is that “TweetDeck Web, however, is a standalone website and requires no downloads, [requires] no app stores, and is not limited to any one brand of Web browser.”
“No app stores” is a win for the browser
The “no app stores” angle obviously has its pros and cons. However, unlike individual developers, companies that aren’t monetizing the mobile app itself don’t need to rely on an app store to attract users. They already have users and other processes to attract new users. Their users simply want to interact with these companies through mobile devices. In fact, putting the company’s Web application into an app store adds extra hurdles for users and for the company when it comes to fixing defects or updating the application.
Yes, if users begin to rely more on app stores and less on the Internet itself for finding new vendors of goods or services, being in the app store of choice will become as important as being listed in Google’s Web index. But we’re years away from this scenario becoming reality, if it ever does. In the short to medium term, established companies can well address new and existing customers through a mobile Web application.
It’s strange that Google hasn’t recognized the mobile browser application opportunity and is instead trying to replicate Apple’s App Store strategy in its Android Market. The use of the browser undermines the value of the underlying OS, and because Google doesn’t much care to profit from the underlying OS or the device (unlike Apple), it should be encouraging companies to build mobile Web applications, not device-native applications. And Google should be indexing and promoting these mobile Web applications.
Consider cross-device frameworks as a step toward standard browser applications
Individual developers and companies that need to be an app store or want to access more of the device’s native capabilities, such as the camera or GPS, should evaluate the various cross-device frameworks available. For example, PhoneGap already has an impressive list of cross-device native feature support. Using a framework such as PhoneGap and its build service could make it easier, faster, and cheaper to create applications for Android and iOS, instead of having to decide which platform to prioritize.
Over time, standards will emerge to access core mobile device capabilities, such as the camera and contacts list, in a cross-device fashion. Whether this occurs through de facto standards around a framework such as PhoneGap or through a formal standards body efforts is unclear. Maybe Google will smarten up and realize it has more to gain by spearheading this initiative than trying to play Apple’s App Store game.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that the browser is the application runtime that matters most. Build for the browser.
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