Mobile users lean toward apps over browsers

Mobile users love their apps and that love affair has outstripped their interest in browsers. That’s according to comScore’s latest mobile subscriber data for November, which found that the percentage of users who use apps has finally surpassed the percent of subscribers who turn to a mobile browser.
ComScore said that 44.9 percent of people used apps in November, compared to 44.4 percent who used a browser. That appears to mark the first time since comScore started noting mobile content usage that app usage has surpassed browser usage. Apps have trailed the browser by just a few percentage points for most of the last two years, but people have still preferred the browser until now.
This follows a similar finding from earlier this year from Flurry, which found that minutes spent per day on apps eclipsed that of time spent on a browser for the first time in June. As some of our commenters noted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that HTML5 is waning, and in fact, some apps are built in HTML5 and wrapped with a native shell. But it shows that people’s interest in apps continues to grow, and that there is value for a lot of people in purpose-driven software that can take them directly to what they want or can make better use of their mobile hardware.
According to other comScore data, Android (s goog) is close to taking a majority of all smartphone users in the U.S., with its market share growing to 46.9 percent in November, up from 43.8 percent in August. Apple (s aapl) also managed to grow to 28.7 percent, up from 27.3 percent in August. The two leaders continue to sap away market share from Research in Motion (s rimm), which saw its market share decline from 19.7 percent to 16.6 percent over the same period. Microsoft (s msft) also continues to wait for Windows Phone 7 to begin gaining traction. Its share of the smartphone market in the U.S. declined from 5.7 percent to 5.2 percent.

These two big data points aren’t completely unrelated. Users love their apps and the two most robust app platforms are iOS and Android. As subscribers continue to prize smartphones for their apps, they will increasingly look to the platforms that give them the best quality and selection of mobile software titles. That’s obviously not the only reason to buy a phone, but it shows again why it’s so hard for RIM and Microsoft to hold their own or close the distance on Apple and Google. They must overcome iOS and Android’s app advantage.
I think Microsoft has done a better job than RIM in cultivating a good mix of apps, but developers are going to be hesitant to really commit more than they already do to Windows Phone 7 when its market share is so small. It becomes a tough cycle to break for a platform like WP7 that got started late, or an OS like BlackBerry, which has hardware that doesn’t showcase apps as well as the competition.
Over time, if the pendulum swings the other way and people start turning to the browser much more, there might be an opportunity for a challenger to move ahead if the emphasis on apps is lessened. But with HTML5 still evolving and potentially always a step behind for some more intensive apps, it’s unclear how much advantage can be gained. And Android and iOS will still provide great browsing experiences as well, so it’s not clear that the rise of HTML5 will shake things up dramatically. This is partly why I’ve been skeptical about Windows Phone 7 leaping into second place in the smartphone wars by 2015. It could still happen, but it’s complicated by carrier and manufacturer relationships. And I think it’s important to remember that apps matter greatly, and will be a key factor in determining the smartphone wars.