Why apps matter so much more in Mobile

The last few months have seen an explosion in the forking of mobile platforms, with the folks in the Android domain leading the list. The list of alternate platforms is growing every day- starting with the forks used on mainstream tablets such as the Kindle Fire and the Nook tablet from B&N ranging all the way to more obscure versions such as “Yi” from Baidu and “Aliyun” which comes from the stables of Alibaba.com. Add to this list other peripheral platforms like HP’s WebOS,  a mobile version of Ubuntu, another one from Firefox, the list is endless.

Clearly these platforms need to fulfill a basic promise that has been set by iOS and Android as a table stakes item- for a platform to see any sort of adoption, it needs to have an established “app catalog.” No apps = no consideration. Period.

The most often used argument by these players when questioned about the “app-gap” is one of circumvention if not denial- that since most content is moving to the web anyway, the very notion of app-tonnage is but a minor niggle, even one that is irrelevant .  To most of them, browser sessions will rule the roost, with dedicated apps falling by the wayside as web-apps gain more and more traction. Why bother about an app catalog when you can build the world’s best web browser?

But its not as simple as it looks- here is why.

1. Apps are designed to bring content to you- you don’t have to go looking for it

Try this series of events—> open browser—>go to a website, navigate through layers upon layers of links on the top, bottom and both sides of the webpage before you can finally find the topic of interest.  Then click, double click to center your content and then wrangle yourself in a series of endless click-double click loops.

This is the problem- most mobile browsers may be desktop class, but most mobile websites are not. Layouts are optimized for an 18” + desktop monitor- and navigating through this maze of popups, blinking ads, nested DHTML and CSS menus etc. before getting to your content is a pain – whichever way you put it.

2. Apps remove the headache of remembering bookmarks, credentials and shortcuts

Mobile navigation is meant to be visual with a content first approach. A subscriber to a content website like say The New York Times, does not need to remember his credentials each time he wants to look up content. An app saves those precious seconds where a user needs to pause to think- and those seconds can mean the difference between accessing the content or getting frustrated and  distracted away. Plus, who wants to remember yet another username and password?

3. Apps exploit hardware in a native way that no amount of web-friendly code can

Clearly apps are more than just bringing web content to the confines of a tiny screen. Take games like Need For Speed that make use of the hardware elements of the device for motion controls such as the accelerometer and the gyroscope to render real time content. The same is true with mapping and navigation apps that use the digital compass. Oh and what about apps like Skype that need access to the camera, the microphone and the speakers? The APIs for hardware that can be accessed within the browser engine are limited- if not non-existent, so certain apps need to be native to the OS, and not tied to web content.

4. Focuses on content – No ads and distractions, panning, pinching and zooming:

Unlike browser based sessions where your screen becomes a smorgasbord of flashing ads, pop up screens, refreshing frame elements, live stock tickers and a zillion scorecards, apps let you get to your content first. Oh- and you don’t have to “click here to skip this ad”, or “wait 30 seconds for your article to load.” Given the limitations of small screens, every pixel is optimized to be used as efficiently as possible.

5. No lags:

While HTML5 shows much promise in terms of offering a zero lag experience, the fundamental premise is that app sessions are basically rendered using the browser’s rendering engine. While this is relatively less consequential for apps that are light (Amazon’s Kindle App), it can be a little dicey on heavier content. A native app hooks into the device’s plumbing at a level so deep that no browser engine can come close to.

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