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People spend more time using apps than web. So what?

By Jason Grigsby

Published on June 21st, 2011


A blizzard of articles followed the release of a report by Flurry that says that the amount of time spent on mobile apps exceeds time spent on mobile and desktop web. Many are referring to this as a tipping point that shows that HTML5 isn’t going to catch native apps.

Yawn. Does this even matter?

I guess the assumption is that the total amount of time spent on the desktop web exceeds the amount of time spent in desktop native apps and that mobile is some new behavior here, right?

Except I can’t find any data on how much time is spent on the web versus using native apps when it comes to desktop computers. The closest I’ve found is research that looks at home usage of computers.

My assumption is that for the tasks that people do repeatedly, that they are likely to find specialized software. Sometimes that specialized software is web-based—salesforce comes to mind—but just as commonly that software is a native app like Outlook or Photoshop.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked at computer usage to find that native app usage exceeded web usage. I have iTunes running constantly while doing other things. Does that count?

One reason I find discussions like this frustrating is not simply because it feeds into an argument that I’ve grown weary of—web versus native—but also because it is information that no one can really act on. What do you do with the information that people are spending more time using mobile apps than they are using the web?

Advertisers perhaps could use it to make decisions to put more money into ads running inside mobile apps. Of course, these ads would:

  • Be built using HTML5—even iAd is based on web technology.
  • Drive people to mobile websites.

Otherwise, the information doesn’t seem to be something you can act on.

One problem with average data like this is that heavy usage—like game play—skews the average. We don’t know median usage. But most importantly, we don’t know the usage patterns for your target customers.

I’m not disputing the results. I’m merely asking, now what?

All of the debate about web versus native obscures two more interesting trends in the data:

  1. Casual gaming, especially via a mobile phone, has really taken off.
  2. Most social networking started in the web, but has turned to native on the phones. Facebook is trying to go back to web on mobile. This is something to watch given how large a chunk of time is spent on social networks.

For all of the talk about how mobile web is being left behind, I have yet to see a single study that doesn’t show exponential growth in mobile web usage.

Yes, people may spend more time playing games than browsing the web on their phones, but they are still browsing the web on their phones in record numbers. And if businesses want to reach them, they need to include mobile web as part of their strategy.

No “average” user looks at their phone and thinks, “Awesome, native apps are winning!” No, they rely on both apps and web on a regular basis.

If our customers don’t see this as a zero sum game, why do we insist on talking about it in these terms? I look at mobile and see a world of opportunity for both the web and native apps.


Brad Frost said:

I totally agree, especially your point how none of this actually matters to the end user. They are going to use the tools that suit them best, and sometimes that means firing up Yelp for a quick restaurant suggestion and other times that means firing off a quick Google search. Is one more important than the other? No. It’s utilizing the right tools for the job and as long as the user achieves their goals that’s all that matters.

However, to weigh in on your “What can you do with this information” question, I think a lot of companies looking to get into (or extend) a mobile strategy might use this information to determine what to budget for. The fact of the matter is that even though WE know that native vs web isn’t a zero sum game, brands and many strategists see it as such. As a result, companies might choose a native app over investing in the mobile web because “that’s where the people are” (we could get into over-saturation of the market and all that but…).

Until we can get it through a lot of people’s heads that a strong mobile strategy involves both web AND native, we’re going to have to put up with this “who’s winning” mentality. I’ll be happy once brands’ budgets reflect a more holistic approach.

Bob said:

Didn’t it come out last week that the #1 use of iPads was for web browsing?

Apps were merely a necessary evil upon launch of smart phones. Look at what Opera is doing with their Browser and it’s integration with other device features.

Anyone who takes a statistic on mobile from today and projects into the future is a fool.

None of us know where this all leads.

Jake said:

Unfortunately, the what-can-you-do-with-this-information answer is make development decisions and investments.

Organizations are driving development using native vs. web arguments rather than polling users, and unfortunately for everyone, native and web are becoming biased camps, making strategic decisions impossible due to mutual exclusion.

Elia Freedman said:

How do you even separate the two in a study? Almost every app I use uses a combination of both web and native. Does that make it a native app or a web app? Email is a native app… until you realize that all of the data is stored and coordinated across my devices in the web. FourSquare, Twitter, Facebook… native or web? All of the data is on the web. These apps are just a window into that data.

João Ribeiro said:

I agree with you, specially in what comes to the part:

– “No “average” user looks at their phone and thinks, “Awesome, native apps are winning!” No, they rely on both apps and web on a regular basis.”

I believe this is actually key, since the user doesn’t really care if it’s one thing or another as long as it’s the best technology to support whatever he or she is looking for 🙂

I came to find that the term “native apps” doesn’t mean the same thing for us developers as it does for the “average” user. For this fellow apps means “stuff I can easily add to my phone”, so I think one of the key advantages of the so called “native apps” is the distribution channel (which comes with the device and makes it easy to install stuff). As for the “web apps” these can also be packaged into native to take advantage of this distribution channel or not, presenting advantages of their own in my opinion… but anyway that could make a new blog post ;))

Here’s an idea, why not write something about:
The Mobile Native Apps VS Mobile Web Apps from a normob (regular user) end-user point of view.

Thanks for the great post 😉