The Future of the Mobile Web: To App or Not to App?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, chances are you’ve been privy to the list of new iPhone 3G S features announced at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference Monday.

Among the list, those that mostly caught my eye were the improved capabilities of the Safari mobile browser. They aren’t the sexiest of the new features, but have lots of implications for mobile local search.

First off, location awareness will be baked right into the browser. This opens up lots of opportunities for local search sites (or any sites) to serve content and advertising targeted to a user’s precise location.

Another upgrade is the ability to launch a map directly within the browser window. Previously, some map links would close the browser and open the default Google Maps application. This was cumbersome for users; while mobile Web sites had to send users away, sometimes never to return.

Democratizing the App

These new capabilities will impact mobile search, as well as the Web publishers that want to build mobile sites. They essentially make it easier to build mobile products without having to spend time and money on native app development.

In other words, a more functional Safari browser now possesses features previously reserved for native apps. Some developers, as a result, can sidestep the process of native app development in favor of a less resource-intensive mobile Web site — also known as a Web app.

Apple already lets developers use a sort of “skin” that makes a Web app act like a native application. This is a standalone browser on which your Web app resides, including its own icon and ability for users to plant it on their home screen. It looks like a native app but it’s really just a glorified bookmark.

Put this all together, and the mobile browser should begin to become more of a front door to the mobile Web. That front door over the past year has been taken over by apps, thanks to the iPhone’s commanding share of mobile Web traffic, and its 50,000 apps.

Reversing the Trend

The rise of the iPhone has caused apps to be the fastest growing access point to mobile local content, such as restaurants, movies, and maps. ComScore pegs apps’ growth in this category at 83 percent over the past year, compared to 72 percent for SMS and 34 percent for the mobile browser.

Local Mobile Subscribers

But could we see this trend turn around? Apps have their fair share of downsides that could begin to slow this growth. Their usage has been shown to decline over time, according to Pinch Media, while many app developers show a waning interest in the increasingly crowded App Store.

Marketing aside, native app development could conversely be buoyed to some degree by its biggest benefit; greater functionality than Web apps. This is particularly salient with some games and higher-end paid apps that rely on lots of development muscle.

But for many apps out there, desired functionality is increasingly coming into reach with mobile Web pages — the latest boost being this week’s Safari enhancements. Already, Google has developed many of its iPhone apps simply as Web apps, such as GTalk, Gmail, and Latitude.

Apps in the Cloud

Most of the above has been stated in terms of the iPhone, but we’ll see other mobile platforms (and desktop browsers) follow suit with location-aware browsers and the broader capabilities of HTML 5. We’ll also see greater processing power in mobile devices and greater network speeds.

Think about it: Similar factors in the desktop environment over the past five years (i.e. broadband penetration, more capable browsers) caused a shift from a local client-centric world to one defined more by browser-based products and cloud computing.

This shift was a central element of what has come to be known as (the overused term) Web 2.0. So are we moving toward a sort of mobile Web 2.0? And will we be able to come up with a better name for it?

We’re starting to see the first signs of that movement. But for Apple and the budding application stores from Palm, Nokia, WinMo, RIM, and Android, it’s still all about the apps — for at least a little while longer.

Submissions are now open for the 2009 Search Engine Watch Awards. Enter your company or campaign before July 17, 2009. Winners will be announced at SES San Jose.

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