Open Internet Standards 10 July 2015

The Mobile App Trap

By Michael KendeGuest AuthorSenior Advisor at Analysys Mason; Digital Development Specialist, IFC

The Apple App Store is seven years old as of Friday, 10 July, marking a key – and possibly critical – evolution in how we use the Internet. First, the numbers, which are truly astounding – there are now more than 1.4 million apps available, which have been downloaded more than 100 billion times. And that’s just Apple. Add in Android and the other platforms, and we start talking about a new app economy, generating billions in revenues for developers from around the world.

For us, the users, apps are our current path to the increasing number of features in our smart phones and tablets, helping us from morning until night. Apps can help wake us in the morning based on our sleep cycle, pay for our coffee, navigate our way to a meeting, time our exercise, remind us to pick up some bread, and find a constellation in the night sky. Based on one survey in the US, more than 80% of online time on a mobile is spent on apps, as opposed to a browser. Even adding in desktop browsing, these users spend more than 50% of overall online time using mobile apps.

That’s a big shift in how we use the Internet. It has generated significant benefits, but they come at a cost. Contemplate the time and expense that might be required to switch mobile platforms. Every app must be downloaded on the new platform, and some must be paid for, again. That assumes that all apps are available on every platform, which they are not. Developers face an expense customizing their apps for each platform, and many only target one or two.

This can, in turn, limit competition between platforms. A new platform needs to offer apps to attract users, but users look at the number of apps available before choosing a platform. In economics we call this a two-sided market – but everyone else calls it a chicken-and-egg problem.

This phenomenon is new to the Internet, where switching computers simply required installing a new or familiar browser, and then possibly redoing favorite bookmarks. It turns out, however, that the old way could also be the new way, using web apps.

A web app enables developers to create websites with advanced features that can be installed on a mobile device with an icon similar to existing apps. Developers can create one web app for all platforms – consumers can easily move between platforms the way they switch browsers today – and new platforms can enter and compete on more of an even ground.

The work leading to this new app environment, known as the Open Web Platform, is led by the World Wide Web Consortium. Examples of this new platform are already emerging and could be a new milestone in how we use the mobile Internet.

The development of web apps, and their resulting ‘interoperability’, has a corollary to a key feature of the Internet as a whole. During the early years of the Internet’s commercialization, vendors and operators joined the open standards movement and helped unleash an unprecedented era of growth and innovation. They found value in adopting standards that promoted interoperability between products across the industry.

Providing interoperability with web apps would reduce the development cost of apps that could reach all platforms, and thereby help to preserve the permissionless innovation that has been a hallmark of the Internet since its creation. It enables anyone, be they in Silicon Valley or Swaziland, to turn inspiration into innovation and innovation into income in order succeed in the new Internet-enabled global marketplace. This would mark another important milestone in the development and evolution of the mobile Internet.

To find out more, read the 2015 Global Internet Report:

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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