It is both humorous and a symbol of how often “generals fight the last war”: big firms struggle mightily to get some kind of credible and effective web presence only to find that when they open their doors it is to the sound of one hand clapping. Of what do I refer? The trend, already well underway, that the part of consumer behavior that is driven by the “online” world is swiftly moving from the traditional web to smartphone-based apps and mobile access to the web.
As much as makers of computers are trying hard to make their products lighter, thinner, and faster to boot-up, the advantages of smartphones is plain to see on virtually every street, coffee shop, mall, and tram. Although bigger smartphone and tablet screens and faster networks help, it is often frustrating for smartphone users to use a website built for computers with their larger screens and the assumption of keyboards and mice. On the other hand, apps and web sites built specifically for smartphones are engineered to load quickly and operate with a light footprint that makes them easy to use with little limited keystrokes and the less accurate poking and prodding of fingertips on screens.
With the convergence of high bandwidth cell networks, ubiquity of free wi-fi, smarter smart phones, QR (quick response) codes, payment via your cell phone, and growing online shopping providers, companies with consumer-facing businesses must now think about inverting their “digital strategy” from one based on a website accessed by a laptop to one based on smartphones.
What facts and events support this perspective? In a recent piece on the growth of smartphone compared to computer-based sites, Jenna Wortham wrote:
Venture capitalists are eager to get in on the mobile trend. According to the research firm CB Insights, mobile apps and companies attracted 10 per cent of the total investment dollars from US venture capital firms in last year’s fourth quarter, and 12 per cent of deals were mobile-related, up from 7 or 8 per cent in previous quarters.
Ben Lerer, manager of the venture capital firm Lerer Ventures, said he preferred to back companies that were building services for mobile first and the web second, because “businesses that are thinking that way are planning for the future.”
Lerer was one of the early investors in OMGPop, a New York company that was close to shutting down until it had an overnight hit in Draw Something, a twist on Pictionary for the iPhone.
Last month, OMGPop was snapped up for $US200 million by the game company Zynga, which has been trying to reduce its dependence on Facebook-based games like FarmVille.
Another hit game, Angry Birds from the Finnish company Rovio, started out on the iPhone before migrating to computers and video game consoles — an unusual trajectory in the game world.
Smartphones are also prompting a shift in how people want to share things online, creating a market for apps that make instant sharing easy, said S. Shyam Sundar, a director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University.
In other words, many people want to post a photograph of themselves right from a sun-drenched beach in Bali, rather than waiting until they are back home to upload all 50 pictures onto Facebook.
“People are living in the moment and they want to share in the moment,” Sundar said. “Mobile gives you that immediacy and convenience.”
Instagram, a social network focusing on just that kind of instant photo-sharing, does have a website — but it is essentially there just to encourage people to download the company’s apps. It is one of several social networks that have established themselves entirely on mobile. Another is Foursquare, which lets users share their location with a select few friends and has attracted nearly 15 million members.
“Mobile-first is the direction that many social networks are headed,” said Holger Luedorf, the company’s head of business development. If done right, he said, such services start to feel “baked into” the phone itself.
Dave Morin, who was at Facebook early on and left to create Path, a social network for mobile phones, said he realised that the world was headed for a mobile-centric future in 2009, when the influential analyst Mary Meeker published a report saying that more people would soon connect to the internet on mobile devices than on personal computers.
Path does not release user numbers, but its app appears to have traction, particularly among people who have become disenchanted with Facebook. “Because you take your smartphone with you everywhere, you can quickly and easily take a photo or video, map your location or jot down a note or a thought,” Morin said.
Companies that start with a website then try to shrink it into an app face a tough challenge. Screen space on mobile devices is at a premium. And to avoid turning off users, designers and developers have to cut back on clutter and streamline their services, avoiding slow load times and stuttering interruptions.
Startups that put their resources into mobile from the start can skip some of the hassles. “You’re freed from worrying about so many of the things that you have to think about when it comes to web development,” said Oliver Cameron, one of the founders of Everyme, an app introduced last week that analyses a user’s contacts and generates miniature social networks around people it thinks belong together.
Then there is the relative ease in finding an audience. Websites and software packages have trouble standing out in the crowd. But apps have a simple distribution mechanism in app stores, which can immediately bring an app to a customer’s attention.
“In February we had close to 900,000 downloads,” said Andreas Schobel, chief executive of Catch, a startup in San Francisco that makes a note-taking app. “How would we do that on the web?”
Mobile apps tailored to work for specific devices like the iPhone also run faster than websites, Schobel noted. “When you’re on the phone you need the experience to be instantaneous,” he said. “You just can’t do that yet on the Web.”
Wortham’s article mentions Mary Meeker’s analysis of trends in 2009. Meeker’s assessment then and now remains compelling. In the fall of 2011 she updated and reinforced her forecast that the high-growth days of computer-based commerce was ebbing while smartphone-enabled business was continuing to explode and will soon surpass ye olde fashioned computer-based web experience.
Meeker’s presentation at a conference in October 2011 emphasized the slowing growth of the traditional internet compared to the mobile internet through smartphones.
She also highlighted that despite the growth in smartphone usage in the US, on a global basis there was huge growth upside for these devices and consequently for mobile internet penetration.
The movement from computer-based web to mobile web is illustrated by the rapidly increasing number of times people access things like Facebook from a mobile device.
With this shift, many companies are also starting to shift more of their advertising efforts to mobile applications.