When I was in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, I was kindly invited to attend a Frog Design talk controversially titled, “Mobile Apps Must Die”. The talk was given by Scott Jenson, Frog’s Creative Director. Jenson originally blogged about this on Frog’s DesignMind blog and received a lot of opinionated attention. Of course you would if you made a statement that could almost throw the world order of mobile apps into chaos and even oblivion. Imagine all the companies, start-ups, developers, investors and app users that must be thinking “No way! Look at all the money that has been spent and made on native apps.” But hold on a second; let’s examine what Jenson actually means. Firstly, Jenson propositions that native apps are too much trouble and not worth the pain of downloading, organizing them and maintaining them is too much. That might sound a little harsh for mobile apps that have only existed for a couple of years, but Jenson is predicting that native apps will come to the end of its life not now, but will take a “long, slow process”. Imagine how many apps you download now, have to organize into categories like games, music, news, photos etc, then eventually delete because you no longer use it. A statistic from mobiThinking found that one in four mobile apps that are downloaded are only used once and then deleted. This reminds me about what happened with all those Facebook apps that clogged up peoples profile page. Eventually, too much becomes too complex and finally overwhelming, then dead. So what is a better way? Jenson suggests that a more ‘Just in Time’ (JIT) interaction is more feasible and manageable. This means, only giving you apps at the exact time you need them. For example, for native apps that helps you in the real world at a point in time, such as an app that tells you which bus to take. This would work better as something that gets pulled to you then disappears after you don’t need it anymore. This interaction represents web apps rather closely, in the sense that you don’t need to install an app to find the information, but you can simply search the web to find it then close the browser after using it. But what Jenson is referring to is more intelligent. I feel that augmented reality can work in this scenario, whereby you hold your smartphone to a bus stop and the direction and bus number will just be overlayed on top of your phone. This means, no downloading, no management but just in time information when you need it. But if information just keeps flying at you, how do you know what to look at? Jenson believes that an intelligent discovery service must be adopted. Meaning, as you interact with the real world, your mobile that is constantly connected to a network or the internet through Bluetooth, NFC, GPS, WIFI will always know exactly what service you need and when you need it; effectively a way to rank. Of course, this can’t apply to all types of native apps. Consider games that make up a large majority of apps that require a lot of processing power. Web apps will not be able to support such requirements on demand, plus crazy to think it, but smartphones are not always online. However the trend for native apps is already starting to shift to web apps. Even the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is planning to make HTML5 a standard by July 2014. HTML5 is basically a language for structuring and presenting content on the web and allows developers to create apps that run online, across a computer or smartphone. Even W3C CEO, Jeff Jaffe is starting to educate developers of the future of HTML5. At the recent Mobile World Congress, Facebook CTO, Bret Taylor also announced the company is joining the concerted effort with W3C to evangelize and make HTML5 a standard and eventually make all phones support it. So coming back to the point: ‘Will native mobile apps die?’ I don’t think so, for some time. Although I feel that Jenson’s points are valid; that the complexity of managing apps will increase as the number of apps increases until it reaches a tipping point where it just becomes too much. But like Jenson realizes, that tipping point will take some time to get to; probably another few years. For now, the push for HTML5 standardisation from powerful groups and companies like W3C and Facebook, will start the trend to pushing apps from native to web.
Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area. More by Jason Lim