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Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Web: The Controversy Just Won’t Die

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There are a lot of layers in the technology stack that I just don’t pay attention to, not because they’re not important, but because a lot of it is horizontally focused (not retail-specific), and there are a lot of other people who cover those issues in far more depth than I do.

But beginning last spring one area within what I would consider to be “hardcore ” technology issues starting appearing on my radar: progressive web apps. I first heard about it at Magento’s user conference, and have kept my ear to the ground around developments here ever since.

Here’s the short version of the story. Consumers tend to be picky about apps on their phones. Very much like loyalty cards in their physical wallets, consumers tend to max out at around 7 apps that they use on a regular basis (or fewer). I know I’m the exception here: I have literally hundreds of apps on my phone, mostly because I have pretty much every retail or shopping app ever developed. And I know plenty of people who treat apps on their phones more like a marriage proposal than a date – they only let apps on their phones for brands they absolutely love, and have no interest in downloading an app just to see if they might like it.

Once you have an app on a consumer’s phone, there are plenty of challenges, especially around getting consumers to download updates. And consumers who update apps then have the challenge of having to revalidate their account (I’ve been caught with this issue plenty of times, where I have to re-log in, and if I didn’t originally set up the account for Facebook login, then I am more often than not locked out of the app – usually right when I need it).

It’s even worse from a business standpoint. If you’re using apps to deliver functionality to, for example, in-store devices that employees use, updates – to operating systems, and to your own apps – are the bane of your existence.

But retailers still persist with an app strategy – because it’s worth it. Apps convert at a rate far higher than mobile web or even desktop. They may not be great at acquiring new customers, just because the challenge of getting found combined with the additional challenge of downloading and setting up an account on top of it often is too high of a barrier for consumers to cross. But they are very good at providing easy access for highly-engaged consumers – access that seems to pay off in sales.

With that kind of mix of pros and cons, we often find that retailers are all over the place around their mobile strategies, especially as they relate to mobile apps. They love them, they hate them, they neglect them or abandon them, they double-down and focus there rather than invest in mobile web.

Progressive web apps (PWA’s) promise to offer the best of both the web and apps. Consumers using PWA’s would theoretically get all of the benefits of mobile apps, with things like persistent logins, app-like access (you could save it to the phone deck with an app-like icon) and navigation. But it would versionless in the sense that anyone accessing the PWA would, by default, be accessing the latest version of the app. There would be no updates to install, ever. The PWA would rely on web access to manage version and content, but in a container’d and services-managed way that would sustain offline access, just like an app.

There’s only one (major) problem with PWA’s – Apple hasn’t gotten behind the idea, yet. PWA’s were an idea started by Google in 2015. As a result, Android is much better positioned to support PWA’s than Apple. Updates to Safari will be needed to support some of the services and technology architecture changes that PWA’s bring to mobile, and those updates have not happened yet.

As far as I could find, Apple hasn’t come out with a position on PWA’s yet (if I’ve missed something, let me know in the comments below). But there are two dueling theories about Apple and PWA’s. In one version, Apple originally wanted apps as they exist today to be more like PWA’s, but the technology wasn’t far enough along to make that happen, so the company defaulted to the App Store idea, which now brings in billions of dollars of almost pure profit to the company. Which is pretty hard to voluntarily cannibalize.

In another version, Apple, notorious for wanting to own the consumer experience, and for making sure that the iPhone experience is a consistent, secure, and user-friendly experience, is dragging its feet around PWA’s as the company makes sure this doesn’t become an avenue for malicious code to make it on user phones (something that you can’t really say about Android in terms of concern for consumer privacy or protection) (this argument is discussed in the same article referenced above).

Either way, given the amount of user investment in the iPhone platform, PWA’s don’t look set to take off unless Apple goes in on the idea. But there are plenty of pundits out there who seem to believe that this outcome of Apple acceptance is inevitable – that this IS the answer to a lot of the drawbacks of apps today.

If that turns out to be true, the future of apps looks bright – much brighter than the 5-7 apps that consumers use regularly today, which is good news for retailers. But we still have some big hurdles to get over before we get there.

Newsletter Articles August 22, 2017
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