The mobile Web isn’t dead; it’s sleeping. And it’s about to wake up

Applications are driving the mobile media revolution, according to data published by comScore this week. The market research firm said apps account for an astounding 81.5 percent of online mobile traffic among U.S. smartphone users; mobile browsers account for the remaining 18.5 percent.

Those statistics prompted Joe Wilcox of BetaNews to proclaim “The mobile Web is dead” and laud Apple’s strategy of building its mobile business on the tightly-controlled App Store rather than the wireless Web at large. “Only Google can save the mobile Web now,” Wilcox wrote.

The problems with apps

By sheer coincidence, comScore’s data was released the same day MIT Technology Review’s Jason Pontin explained “Why publishers don’t like apps.” Mobile apps must be built for multiple platforms, Pontin notes, which is a costly endeavor, and most consumers are still unwilling to pay for online news. Content apps are often walled gardens, he wrote, that don’t support links as well as a website. And – perhaps most importantly – Apple and other app distributors charge a hefty fee for playing the role of retailer, straining the app business model. “The paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead,” according to Pontin.

Neither Pontin nor Wilcox is entirely accurate in sounding the death knell, however. As my colleague Mathew Ingram notes here, The Economist claims about 50,000 users of its iPad app, which costs $105 for an annual subscription. And other publishers such as Conde Nast are slowly gaining traction on the iPad.

And the mobile Web is growing at an impressive clip, as Walker Sands Communications reported earlier this year. The public relations firm said traffic from mobile devices to a dozen websites from various industries accounted for 13 percent of overall traffic during the fourth quarter of 2011, up from 6 percent during the same period in 2011.

The promise of HTML5

That growth will get a tremendous boost as HTML5 continues to progress toward fulfilling its promise as a viable technology for Web-based mobile apps. Platforms such as Tizen and Mozilla’s oddly-named Boot to Gecko are embracing HTML5, and LinkedIn recently released a hybrid iPad app that is almost entirely HTML5-based. And the Financial Times last week said it will kill its iPad and iPhones apps in favor of an HTML5 Web app, providing a way to target iOS users without incurring Apple’s 30 percent revenue split.

But HTML5 is more than just a way to avoid app store fees, of course; it enables developers to address huge swaths of mobile devices with a single build. That proposition could be especially attractive to businesses looking to trim their development costs, which is why SAP is moving so aggressively into HTML5 development in the enterprise.

Wilcox is clearly right that most of us are using mobile browsers to access the Web far less often than we use apps, most of which are designed to deliver specific online content in a specific format. Those apps are usually easier to use than mobile websites, and they can deliver a more powerful, richer experience than online technologies allow.

As I’ve said before, content owners and developers all too often view the Web vs. app debate as a winner-take-all proposition where one side will thrive at the expense of the other. Games that leverage rich graphics to create an immersive user experience will probably always need the kind of power that only a native app can offer. But less immersive content – like the LinkedIn app I mentioned – will increasingly look to HTML5 to deliver a solid user experience at substantially decreased cost. And as developers continue to move to HTML5, browser-based traffic on the mobile Web will close the gap with all those native apps. Businesses who don’t have a presence on the mobile Web need to be prepared.

Question of the week

How much will HTML5 drive traffic on the mobile Web over the next year?