Why HTML5 Should Replace Native Apps for Ecommerce

Today’s post expands on one of my predictions for 2013 that could be somewhat controversial:

HTML5 will begin to replace native apps in mobile commerce strategies, as Apple’s dominance dwindles and Android and Windows Mobile grow. The ease of maintaining one experience that serves all platforms and the significant cost benefit will make this a no-brainer approach for organizations.

Here’s the rationale behind it. Let’s begin with the cons and pros of native apps:

Cons of native apps

  • Expensive to develop and maintain across multiple platforms (including updates and bug fixes)
  • App users have to proactively update their apps as well, meaning user experience can get worse over time
  • Lack the “linkiness” of the web (e.g. content can’t be shared outside of the native app)
  • Apps that generate revenue are subject to a heft cut by the platform owner (30% for Apple and Google)
  • Consumers don’t use apps as much as you think (will explain below)

Pros of native apps

  • Can leverage properties of a phone like shake and camera, which can add to the cool-factor and utility of your app
  • Having a native app meets customer expectations (e.g. searching for your app in the App Store)
  • Performance can be faster (but some mobile browsers can be faster than native apps due to optimized memory management and performance)
  • New customers / users can discover you in the marketplace through the browse feature

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. There are certainly business cases for building a native app. But my prediction is more businesses will embrace HTML5 apps because of the cost savings and efficiency of maintaining one experience that serves all devices.

Aside from cost, mobile strategists need to take a serious look at the reality of app usage.

Do mobile apps matter for ecommerce?

Retail

Mobile shopping is growing, but the question is whether consumers demand native apps or are satisfied with browser experiences. For online retail, research suggests: “across all demographics, 87 per cent prefer shopping via websites and mobile sites, compared to just four per cent that like to use mobile apps.”

According to research by Flurry, mobile shopping through apps isn’t even on the radar. It’s part of the 5% of time spent on the “other” category.

Paid content

Certainly news and magazine content is preferred by tablet owners to be consumed through native apps, right? According to Pew Research, tablet owners are 3 times as likely to access news through mobile web browsers than native apps, and smartphone owners twice as likely.

Flurry’s chart shows consuming news is only 2% of time spent on mobile apps.

Gaming

If you develop games, tablet and smartphone apps are not accessories to, they are your products. It’s not surprising that games represent 43% of time spent on mobile apps. But HTML5 is still a viable strategy for even the largest game developers. EA’s Strike Fortress was developed in HTML5 by college interns in 5 months.

Social networks

Though a big chunk of the chart, social networking is only 26% of time spent using mobile apps. But even Facebook admits, it gets more visits to its mobile web site than through its Android and iOS apps combined.

Mobile Platform Market Share

If your core customer is affluent, your mobile traffic and conversions may skew towards iPad owners, but market share data from Gartner shows the big player is Android. 72.4% vs. 13.9% is a massive spread.

iOS share is even less than the sum of the rest of mobile platforms, and we may see iOS share drop even further if Android, Blackberry and Windows gain users this year.

But is HTML5 really ready?

Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook’s “biggest mistake” was doubling down on HTML5. His development team “burnt two years” on their HTML5 experience before shifting gears to native apps, because Facebook believes it can do so much more with native than HTML5.

In a Yammer discussion, my co-workers aptly pointed out this is more likely a case of “a bad workman blaming his tools” than one of HTML5 being inferior. Facebook’s lack of in-house expertise is the real issue.

Sencha Fastbook demonstrates that HTML5 can deliver an even better experience than Facebook’s native apps:

How you like dem apples?

In addition to lack of in-house skills, Facebook seems to have a very backward approach to mobile strategy. Not only is it catering to smaller segment of native app users vs. the web version, it released the new iOS app long before Android. If 13-19% of Facebook’s users are iOS owners, and a much lesser portion prefer to use the native app to the web version, that’s a lot of effort to please the minority.

Bottom line

User behavior is geared more to web apps than native, and the business case for developing dedicated apps for multiple platforms is losing steam. Add to this that HTML5 has been deemed “feature complete” by the World Wide Web Consortium. My prediction is mobile strategies that consider the ROI of developing apps, with a long-term outlook will shift away from native development, though it may take some time to catch on, as the hype around native apps has convinced many marketing departments native ecommerce apps are table stakes.

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