Apps Versus the Mobile Web

I was somewhat surprised to come across a recent piece on Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror site lamenting the apparently sorry state of mobile apps. It’s a well-worn tirade, one that I’ve been hearing for almost half a decade now. In that span of time the argument has been nuanced a bit from “apps are pointless” to “apps are poorly designed, pointless and evil”… Yay, progress!

These same years have seen the growth of mobile-optimized web sites and the responsive web, wherein different versions of the same page can be delivered to different devices on the fly. As the mobile web has become more sophisticated, I suppose the question is still valid: Are apps crap?

The Case For Apps

Clearly, mobile apps are wildly popular with users, with 50 billion downloads and counting on the iOS App Store and downloads from Google Play not far behind. A quick survey of my own Nexus 5 yields 87 installed apps versus a single mobile web browser.

The Case Against

I first came across this “app is crap” argument in a blog post by Venture Capitalist Mark Suster. Suster is a veteran of the industry, having witnessed the birth of the mobile Internet with the launch of NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode in Japan. His 2010 treatise on apps is very much worth reading, even four years later. A sample quote:

I don’t believe there is any compelling reason for The Gap, Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch to have apps on my phone.

I tend to agree… Though I’ve not yet purchased anything from Amazon through my phone I visit their fantastic mobile site all the time. Another good example is Wikipedia; I tried the Android app but no longer use it, because the mobile site is every bit as good.

On the other side of the coin Cathay Pacific, the airline that took me to Hong Kong and back last month, has no mobile-optimized site, only an app. Amazingly, any and all attempts by me to check in for flights via the app have failed.

XKCD: Download our app!

Cut to 2014 and Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood is saying pretty much the same thing:

I want to know who exactly is going to all the trouble of installing the McDonald’s app on their device instead of simply visiting the McDonald’s website… What problem does that app solve for french fry enthusiasts that it needs to be permanently installed on your device? Why are they giving away free Big Macs just to get people to install this thing?

That last question is answered by raising the spectre of egregious app permissions:

Nothing terrifies me more than an app with no moral conscience in the desperate pursuit of revenue that has full access to everything on my phone: contacts, address book, pictures, email, auth tokens, you name it. I’m not excited by the prospect of installing an app on my phone these days. It’s more like a vague sense of impending dread, with my finger shakily hovering over the uninstall button the whole time. All I can think is what shitty thing is this “free” app going to do to me so they can satisfy their investors?

I should probably take this opportunity to remind Android users that there are ways to block such things

Back to Atwood, one more case for the mobile web is made in the closing paragraph of his rant:

I expect there to be an explosion of new computing devices all over the world in the next few decades, not a contraction. Sometimes the craziest solution is the one that’s been right there in front of you the whole time.

Hmm…

I’m always happy to visit a well-coded responsive website, but apps and app stores have immediate and obvious value as well. If there’s anything up for discussion here I’d say it’s the laggards in both camps who need to up their game and provide a better experience to users. Bonus points if they can respect your privacy at the same time.