What’s a mobile app?

First: What’s an app? This concept has gotten pretty mushy.

“App” is short for “application,” and traditionally this was just a really generic term for any standalone bit of software that runs on top of a computer’s operating system — the way that Microsoft Word runs on top of the Windows operating system.

Apps used to mean tools. That is, they were originally mostly about DOING stuff — and in my opinion, the best apps still are…

Only since the era of smartphones began have people been saying “app” to refer to software that really just serves as a passive content consumption interface. In fact, most news “apps” offer scant interaction beyond navigating, searching, rating, commenting on, and sharing published content.

That’s shortsighted. The novelty of reading or watching news inside a specific news brand’s app wears off really fast. Then it just becomes clutter on your screen.

What are mobile apps?

A mobile app is software that runs on a handheld device (phone, tablet, e-reader, iPod, etc.) than can connect to wifi or wireless carrier networks, and has an operating system that supports standalone software.

Usually, when people hear “mobile app” they assume you mean native app. This is a program that runs on a handheld device (phone, tablet, e-reader, iPod Touch, etc.) which has a “smart” operating system which supports standalone software and can connect to the internet via wifi or a wireless carrier network. Usually people download native mobile apps from app stores such as the Apple app store or the Android Market.

A native app can only be “native” to one type of mobile operating system: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows Phone, WebOS, etc. This is why an iPhone app works only on iOS devices — so if you want to also make your app experience available to Android or Blackberry users, you’ll need to develop and maintain a separate piece of software. That gets complicated and expensive.

In contrast, a mobile web app is software that uses technologies such as Javascript or HTML5 to provide interaction, navigation, or customization capabilities. These programs run within a mobile device’s web browser. This means that they’re delivered wholly on the fly, as needed, via the internet; they are not separate programs that get stored on the user’s mobile device.

UPDATE 3/4: Reading this recent ReadWriteWeb article reminds me that I should note that in a computer or tablet environment, web apps are indeed something that you can download and install into your browser, much like you’d install a browser extension. There are several web apps available for Google’s Chrome browser. There’s a new Mozilla web apps project that in coming weeks should allow “syncing your Web Apps to your mobile devices” — but I’m not clear yet on whether that means syncing with OS-specific native apps installed on mobile devices, or via mobile web browsers. Stay tuned on that.

Mobile web apps can be designed to run reasonably well via almost any smart mobile web browser — from the full-featured browsers such as the ones available for iPhones and Android phones, to the mid-range browsers such as you see on many BlackBerry phones.

Feature phones and apps? Really?

“Feature phone” is the telecom industry term for non-smartphones. According to ComScore, 73% of the mobile handsets in use in the US are feature phones. And most of these phones can connect to the internet and browse the web.

If you think about it hard (and if you want to reach a huge mobile market, you should!), you can design interactive “appish” web-based tools that work well — and deliver value to mobile users — via the primitive, stripped down web browsers and slow data connections available to most feature phone users.

Good example: Alternative fuel locator, from the US DOE. This mobile web app locates nearby stations selling alternative vehicle fuels. It even works on very crappy feature phones and slow/weak data connections. There’s one problem though: the URL (http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/locator/m/stations) is way too long! That’s frustrating to type in on any mobile keyboard. If they have a shorter URL, I couldn’t find it listed anywhere. At least you can find it easily on a Google search, but still: this would be easily fixed with a short redirect URL.

Any time you have a data-based interactive tool, try to find a way to make at least part of it work reasonably well on a feature phone web browser.

Feature phones are getting better.

The biggest development to watch this year is Qualcomm’s deployment of the Opera Mini browser via its feature phone platform BREW MP. Basically this means that in a year, browsing the web on most feature phones will be much easier and more fun for mobile users. Expect feature phone usage to jump sharply. Watch your web analytics for Opera Mini traffic.

By the way: Many feature phones can run simple standalone programs. These are usually based on Javascript technology and are available on platforms such as Snaptu and Getjar. Facebook recently debuted a feature phone app.

Smartphones in perspective

Among the minority (27%) of current US handsets that are smartphones, about a third are BlackBerries — which generally don’t offer a stellar native app or web browsing experience.

Only 25% of US smartphones are iPhones — that’s just 6.25% of all mobile phones. ComScore says there are slightly more Android phones currently in use in the US.

So if you develop both an iPhone and an Android app, that gives you potential access to a little over 12% of the current US market. Compared to feature phones, that’s not much. Plus, only a small fraction of users on each platform will download your app — and most of them will open your app only once or not at all.

You need to make a strategic decision whether you’re going to serve today’s mobile market, or wait for tomorrow’s. (Hint: Waiting generally doesn’t bode well where consumer technology is concerned.)

Even though feature phone users probably won’t interact much with your content or advertising, and even though it’s editorially and technically challenging to give them a decent experience, it’s important to at least try — simply because they’re 73% of the market. If you can give them a decent taste of your brand via the mobile you have now, they’ll probably want to do more with you later via their handheld devices.

No, not everyone will have a smartphone by next year.

From the consumer perspective, right now smartphones have some considerable drawbacks:

  • They’re much more expensive to buy — usually $100-$200 up front.
  • They’re vastly more expensive to own — Usually $95-$120/month.
  • They’re too much of a financial commitment. It’s almost impossible to get a smartphone in the US without being locked in to a 2-year carrier contract, with hefty early termination fees. If you’re unsure of your income prospects or upcoming expenses, knowing that your phone will costs you a moderate ($40-50), flat rate every month, and being able to cancel that service or switch to another carrier with no penalty, is a significant bonus.
  • They’re too complicated for many people. Don’t underestimate this! Most people who have smartphones only use the basic functions and don’t download any new apps.
  • Battery life sucks. Most feature phones can go a few days on standby charge. Try that with your iPhone.

I expect the smartphone market share to increase significantly, but I doubt it will ever become the majority of the market until most of these problems are addressed — especially the cost of the 2-year contract. That’s the deal killer for most consumers.

Virgin Mobile might be starting to change that. I just learned about that today from Pekka Pekkala. I’ll check into it, to see if it’s really that good a deal.

3 thoughts on What’s a mobile app?

  1. Pingback: This Week in Review: Google’s content farm crackdown, Facebook’s new comments, more TBD lessons » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  2. Great post Amy. The challenge we face as a product company is making our product available to the masses. Without clear direction on the carriers and manufacturers strategy it is so difficult to align product management to the market place. It seems like our best bet is to have a web based service java app, and pick iPhone and Android for the App play.
    Any thoughts on that would be much appreciated?

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