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Links Don’t Open Apps

By Jason Grigsby

Published on May 16th, 2011

Are you having trouble convincing people that they need to develop a mobile web site as part of their overall mobile strategy?

I have a solution for you. Ask the people you need to convince if they do any of the following:

  • Send email to their customers?
  • Participate in social media?
  • Search engine optimization?
  • Advertise online?

Each one of those marketing efforts is based on links. And links don’t open apps.

It seems like a basic concept, but the fact that links can only reliably open web pages is often forgotten.

This is one reason why mobile web has to be part of every company’s strategy. When someone encounters a link via an email newsletter or shared via a social network, they should be able to view that link no matter where they are and no matter what device they are using.

Inevitably, when I talk about how links don’t open apps at a conference, someone who wasn’t in the audience will point out that on some platforms like iOS, you can register URL schemes to open apps.

While this is technically true, it isn’t practical for most communication because:

  • Not every platform offers equivalent functionality. On Android, the way to invoke applications is intents which works very differently.
  • Even if you could somehow create the same url scheme on every mobile platform, the url would only work if the user had your application installed which you can’t guarantee nor control.

While saying that links don’t open apps isn’t “technically” true, it is a practical reality.

The realization that links don’t open apps has triggered for me a renewed appreciation of the power of hyperlinks. When people talk about the differences between native apps and mobile web, they usually talk about difference like performance, cross platform development, and other technical factors.

Rarely do we talk about hyperlinks and the power it provides the web. No native platform will be able to replicate the universal utility of links any time soon.

We should stop worrying about whether or not native apps can do certain things better than web technology, and instead talk about what makes the web unique, powerful, and universal.


Brad Frost said:

Well said! I think this is great fodder for a Native AND Web strategy instead of the misguided Native vs. Web argument. Ultimately, brands, companies, even native app makers should have an optimized mobile web experience for all the points you highlighted above.

I think the issue right now comes down to companies currently dealing with finite mobile budgets. Once everyone gets blindsided by the mobile hurricane, then we'll start seeing some more holistic mobile strategies. Until then, we will have to hit our heads against a wall hearing native vs. web discussions.

Ian homer said:

@johan that's all good if you're lucky enough to have your app installed on the users phone, but most people are not that fortunate and would value a simple visit to their web site (where of course you might promote your app)

James Pearce said:

Obviously the title should be "links don't open *native* apps" because it's perfectly possible to create an app experience with web technology that is top- and deep-linkable.

Not that there is a particularly clear definition of the difference between an app and a site - to me the latter shuttles HTML back and forwards rather inefficiently; the former more programmatic, client-side, and data-consuming.

Anyway, as long as you are using web technology and a browser, both architectural (and experiential) approaches are linkable. Everyone wins.

Ryan Thompson said:


While I agree a is key considering the web is built on links, a native app shouldn't be discounted. For instance, if your site has an app, that's not only free advertising, it's usability, customer satisfaction, and ultimately a social "link" in that it creates Word of mouth marketing too. If a native app works well, I'll take it over the mobile web. However, if i go to a site and it's isn't mobile optimized, I may never return again.

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) said:

@ryan I never said you shouldn't do an app. This isn't a zero-sum game.

I am saying that if you have an marketing communication that relies on links, you're inevitably going to need mobile web to support that communication.

John Allsopp said:

Hi Jason,

thanks for the great keynote, and the very nice words!

BTW, I've been doing some articles, and a lot of thinking about the intrinsic advantages mobile has over native apps, and linking is a big one (friction-less upgrade cycles, freedom and others exist as well)

thanks again


Lars Lindbäck said:

Links do in fact open (native) apps - browsers ;)
(sorry, couldn't resist..)

Thank you for posting this. I was actually one of those techies that pointed out that links can open apps. But you're right, although it's technically true in some cases there is no uniform way of opening native apps cross-platform. And even if it did, you shouldn't assume that the user has installed your app. So if you're sending out links (in email, text messages etc.) make sure that whatever that link points to is viewable in all browsers.

Samuel Bronson said:

The Android functionality that @Johan mentions, where native app can take over a certain part of the http:// namespace, certainly seems like the best way to have links open apps.

At any rate, it'd look pretty silly (and be fairly confusing) to have two sets of links, one for browsers and one for your app, in every email, and one certainly can't expect duplicated links from blog entries and so on. (Twitter doesn't even help one link to two things in one tweet!)

The only other approach that would degrade at all gracefully would involve allowing the user to open a native app from your page. For example, the user goes to, and that (perhaps based on a preference stored in a cookie or in localStorage?) offers a link to myapp://foo/bar, or offers to open a Java applet, or to do whatever else it might take to open a native app on the device ... of course, if this gets too clunky, users would probably just rather use the site itself ;-).

But yes, obviously, you need a site that will work everywhere, regardless of whether or not links can open apps. Because you never know when someone will be reading their mail in Emacs over SSH and want to follow your link...