Warning: The end of apps as we know it? 


By James Rosewell, founder and CEO of 51Degrees

Mobile marketers face a constant dilemma; whether to create an app or a website. The question boils down to this: whether to create a single-codebase website, or a number of bespoke, native applications, written for as many platforms and device types as budget allows and distributed and maintained on a range of app stores.

Why the app won

Given the effort and cost involved, the website should be the obvious choice. Yet the app, to date, has often won. There were several reasons for this. The first was that historically you could do more in an app than in a mobile browser.  The app had more privileges allowing it to utilise all the devices features. For example, understanding the orientation of the device via the accelerometer, or accessing the camera.

Yet HTML5 technology and WebGL, an open standard that enables the mobile web browser to enjoy the same graphical processing capabilities as an app, have changed this. Now, every modern mobile web browser has almost the same access to the devices capabilities as an app.

The second reason is that in the early days of app development it was relatively easy to get discovered on the app stores.  Today, with more than one million apps on each of the two main platforms it is far more difficult. Even obscure use cases have more than one app devoted to them and popular use cases like satellite navigation have hundreds of choices, both good and bad.

A third reason was user reluctance to type in complex urls on mobiles; but with the development of voice activated search, mobile search, TinyURLs and more content being discovered via links from social media or email, this argument is largely irrelevant now.

Finally, the fourth reason was around user experience. Historically the user experience on mobile websites could be poor as they were adapted from big screen desktop thinking. The poor results drove many companies to a ‘mobile first’ strategy. Sadly often this meant the mobile web got better at the expense of the desktop, but that’s a topic for another day.

Part of the problem has been the industry’s rush to embrace responsive web design (RWD), which was seen as a way of building a website once that would work on any device, regardless of screen size, input method or device capability. RWD has been seen as the way to go mobile first and was a great idea in theory.

However small screen smartphones, tablets, sesktops and laptops don’t share the same physical attributes or many common usage scenarios. For example with a fine grain mouse or touch pad pointer on a laptop or desktop hover navigation works well and enables several levels of content to be traversed in a few seconds. Such an approach to navigation would be clunky and unusable on a touch screen.

Essentially, RWD is a blunt tool that delivers an average experience across every device, rather than an optimised one for each type of device. Furthermore RWD implementations often result in poor performance and user experience which has recently been acknowledged by Google and others as a prime cause of revenue loss for businesses. Instead, separate high performance mobile websites are being advocated.

Dawn of device detection

Device detection offers a way of enhancing RWD to deliver a more effective and personalised solution. Device detection identifies the device that is accessing a website, not just whether it is a desktop or mobile but which brand of mobile, which browser, physical screen size, handset price, supported networks, and other significant capabilities of the device.

By implementing device detection, mobile marketers can automatically send content to a device that is relevant, well laid out and works well on that device, which means no more videos that will not play, broken pictures, overly confusing or simplistic navigation, or slow web page display times.

When device detection is implemented well, it speeds up mobile web pages, delivers an elegant and relevant design to any device and creates a more engaging experience for the user increasing revenue. It also provides critical intelligence for a website about the visiting devices and users, what they are doing and highlights performance issues. For example, well implemented device detection might tell you that 40% more iPhone users are not checking out on your site compared to Android users and provides the tools to fix this.

Device detection, combined with mobile first and aspects of RWD, make the mobile web far more compelling than it has ever been before. Compared to the challenges of maintaining apps and promoting them on crowded app stores the operational benefits are clear. The mobile web will ultimately be the platform of choice for most.

51Degrees is a small technology business specialising in device detection, producing opensource solutions used by more than 1.5 million web sites globally. 51Degrees tools simplify creating web sites for mobile, tablets and desktop devices ensuring business return on investment is optimised.


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