Apps and Mobile Web: The State of the Debate

I love a good debate, and there’s no longer or more enduring debate in the world of mobile media than the classic “apps versus mobile Web.” In some ways it is a great debate topic – well-reasoned arguments can be advanced on both sides, and rational, smart people whom I respect on each side make very valid points. On the other hand, it’s not a debate where one or the other side is likely to ever win, at least not in the short- or medium-term, rendering it somewhat moot. But a couple of recent developments justify a look at the state of the debate.

“Apps versus mobile Web” comes down to which type of mobile content presents a better mobile content, advertising, and/or marketing opportunity: native apps that consumers download from venues like Google Play or the iTunes App Store, or mobile Web content that they access via browser. One frequently cited statistic in the debate is time spent. Flurry’s most recent update (released on April 1) suggests that 86 percent of mobile time spent is spent in apps, with the other 14 percent in mobile Web (their corresponding stats from last year were 80 percent in app, 20 percent on Web).

At the superficial level, this suggests apps are the better place for mobile ads: it’s where the audience is spending time. However, Flurry’s data also shows that a large share (32 percent) of connected time spent in app is spent playing games, 17 percent is spent on Facebook, with another 11 percent on Twitter and other social messaging apps. Eliminating games and social media from the equation shifts the balance to 35 percent of time spent in browser and 65 percent in apps. Also skewing the data, some “in-app” time is really spent on the mobile Web, as many apps, like Facebook and Zite, have built-in browser capabilities, and users regularly follow links to the mobile Web, while staying entirely within those apps.

The main arguments in the debate have been established for a while now.

The pro-app camp makes arguments like:

  • “People spend more time in apps so I should be where people spend more time.”
  • “Consumer engagement and retention are higher on apps than mobile sites.”
  • “Apps facilitate non-ad revenue streams – they can be sold or offer in-app purchases.”
  • “You can offer richer ad experiences/take advantage of device capabilities with in-app advertising.”

While the pro-mobile-Web camp argues:

  • “The Web gets you reach; apps are too fragmented.”
  • “Even with MRAID it’s hard to build scalable, rich in-app ads.”
  • “Mobile Web has better discoverability.”
  • “HTML5 makes native apps obsolete.”

As I said, both sides make some good points.

Last week brought interesting news on the app front with Facebook’s announcement of its “App Links” method for linking to specific places in an app – so-called “deep linking.” App Links joins a field of other deep-linking solutions, including the open source Mobile Deeplinking spec released earlier this year. Deep linking, via whatever methodology, promises to make apps more “Web-like” – facilitating tappable buttons that can take a user to specific places within a native app experience.

At the same time, the mobile Web is getting more “app-like,” as smart Web designers push the boundaries of what HTML5 can do. Examples of this abound, one good one being the addictive tile game “2048,” which behaves virtually indistinguishably from an app, but plays in-browser.

To advance this conversation, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is planning an industry town hall in June, which we’re titling “The Future of the App.” We’ve also created an advisory board, which recently held its first meeting to explore ways we can help the industry get beyond the conventional wisdom and understand better how people navigate between apps and the mobile Web in their daily lives. We believe it’s worth looking more closely at demographic segments and content genres, getting beyond the headline time-spent metrics.

In the long run, the current bright line between apps and mobile Web will fade – yet another example of mobile convergence. For now, though, where ads are concerned it’s unfortunately true that methods of tracking, targeting, and measuring differ between the cookie-based Web and device-identifier-based (or other-based) app world, complicating the market and creating friction. What IAB would ultimately like to do in the “Apps Versus Web” debate is to make it easier for ad buyers to reach their desired audiences across both apps and Web, as simply and consistently as possible.

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