App store mania will further delay growth of browser-based applications
The app store delivery model--made popular by Apple but reinforced by the likes of RIM, Nokia, Palm, Microsoft, Android, Verizon Wireless and many more to come--has penetrated our high-end mobile devices and transformed the way we discover and obtain mobile applications. Now, I am not here to debate the intricacies of the mobile storefront, as such a discussion warrants its own space, but rather to question whether the success and popularity of app stores puts a crimp into the migration to the browser-based application utopia that so many seek.
At one point, perhaps three or four years ago, one could have argued that there would only be two or maybe three operating systems that would be in the mobile game. However, in just the past two years, the OS market has swelled with the addition of Mac OS X, Android and webOS. Add in BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian and multiple other Linux flavors and we are now in the realm of seven-plus viable operating systems for the mobile device. With such expansion and complexity, the thought of moving to a browser-based scenario could simplify the lives of developers, users and supporters of multiple devices, leveraging a standard browser across all devices.
And this idea is not new. In the latter part of the 20th century, I followed many companies who pounded the table saying that a browser-based offering was the only way that business applications could be delivered in real-time across a broad set of mobile devices. I also saw these companies fail miserably. Such a concept in 1999 was ahead of its time. Ten years later, it's also still ahead of its time.
Certainly app stores are not helping the browser-based cause. Just as cloud-computing cranks up and is seen as a viable play for the mobile environment, along comes Apple and its billion downloads of, yes, native applications. And Apple's mobile storefront will not be alone as software companies, mobile operators and device manufacturers all seek to get their app store businesses opened.
IDC sees three key challenges to browser-based solutions:
1. Browsers aren't ready for primetime. Although tremendous improvements have been made by the likes of Opera, Apple and even Nokia and RIM, a quantum leap was being able to simply and efficiently read some of the basic sports or news pages on a mobile device. That's nice, but it's not at the level of complexity required for critical business systems or popular consumer applications. Also important is the ability to leverage the native capabilities on the device such as the dedicated keys, phone, calendar, camera, address book, GPS or accelerometer. Browser-based solutions have the lowest potential for being context-aware or for delivering rich composite applications.
2. Some level of local access on the device feels right and makes sense for mobile. If you consider some of your favorite applications or the ones that work the best--think of a RIM mobile email experience, Google Maps, Facebook on a mobile device or an iPhone App Store application--they all have one thing in common: some level of local store on the device. Those RIM emails pop up real fast because they are stored on your device. Lightweight clients and hybrid applications such as Google's mobile apps and Facebook leverage intelligence on the device and provide updates or access over the air. Strong processing power, growing storage capacity and credible synchronization technology provide seamless and valuable end-user experiences that would be hard to replicate in a browser.
3. Even in the desktop world, browser-based is not always preferred. With a persistent connection over a fast Ethernet network, backed by a T1, users still often prefer the local client/server based application over a browser-based application, for some of the same reasons listed above. There is no doubt that there are many good browser-based applications that work quite well in the desktop world, but many of the workhorse applications of businesses today were designed to leverage native desktop horsepower and are not applications you would consider in browser mode. In the mobile world, we are challenged even further to operate applications in a browser-based mode.
Well before any of the app store mania and before the advent of the iPhone, IDC had been advocating that having some level of local client access will always be critical to the deployment of mobile business applications--and will be relevant for the next several years. A recent IDC study in the U.S. and U.K. demonstrates that a majority of companies are currently deploying applications leveraging some type of local access. The application model has evolved over the years from a thick client to the thin/lightweight/hybrid model, where varying degrees of native access is leveraged, including in some cases fairly large local stores, allowing OTA synchronization for sending and receiving data and updating applications. As discussed above, Google Maps and Facebook on mobile devices are great examples of these hybrid or lightweight applications.
There is no doubt a move toward even thinner applications, and a variety of technologies provide quality, browser-based experiences. The browser in many cases, however, will be the lowest common denominator for many applications. Therefore, the processing power, storage capacity and the efficiencies of synchronization technology locally provide compelling reasons for delivering native applications (especially ones that require connectivity with back-end servers) and will be included in mobile solutions in the foreseeable future. Recent app store mania certainly seems to point to this.
Stephen Drake is the program vice president for Mobility & Telecom research at IDC. In this position, he has responsibility for the Mobile Enterprise, Mobile SMB, Mobile Device coverage, IP Communication Services and also contributes to IDC's Unified Communication research. Visit IDC.com.