The Amazon, Walmart & FT app rebellion: What it means for you

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If you take the time to read some of the many articles on mobile app strategy, you’ll find that they focus on trying to answer the crux argument of whether to build a native app for each mobile platform or a web app that tries to cover them all. After all, there are significant costs involved, both in development and time to market, and focussing on one strategy appears wiser than trying to be the best in all.

In most cases however, the authors fail to choose between native and web and (somewhat wishfully) recommend a mobile strategy that encompasses both. This is not as much of a failing as it may appear though. The reasons for both are strong and the benefits are divided. This is scant help for the budget-strapped SME marketing director, but what of the big brands? Should they develop on all platforms? At the very least, what platform should they target first?

In the last few weeks, there have been some interesting developments. Some of the world’s largest eCommerce/media brands — Amazon, Walmart and The Financial Times — have released, to fanfare, some high-profile mobile web apps. What is even more interesting, at least in the case of FT, is a recommendation to its users that they prefer the web app over its native counterpart. In turn, Amazon has clearly put some weight in fast-tracking a web version of its popular Kindle app and Walmart has launched its Vudu video-streaming service (usually a field dominated by DRM-heavy native apps) on mobile entirely using a web app. There is no native counterpart.

One reason for this? Apple’s hefty sales tax, measuring 30 percent on both app sales and importantly in-app purchases. Through the contracts every iOS developer must sign, in February Apple forbade publishers from selling digital content through means other than Apple’s in-app purchase system, unless they also offered that content through Apple at the same price or lower. For publishers like Amazon which compete with Apple in selling ebooks, this was untenable. Apple relented after publisher complaints and only required apps selling content to not link to an external content store (like amazon.com), but the Apple tax remains. If you’re competing at mass volume on price, 30 percent isn’t just high — it’s unsustainable if your competition is finding a way around it. Finding a way around it is exactly what Amazon, Walmart and FT are doing.

Web apps, based on the open HTML5 standard and delivered simply through the browser rather than a proprietary App Store, do not carry any third party charges. Additionally, there is no third party gatekeeper to app acceptance, as Apple performs with its App Store. For publishers that compete with Apple (and that number is growing), these are very attractive propositions.

In the case of Amazon, Walmart and FT there is an indication that they have thrown their considerable weight behind the web app mobile strategy option. It is also rumoured that Facebook will follow suit with its own Project Spartan. Another interesting development is the recent release of leading m-commerce provider Usablenet’s web-based Mobile 2.0 platform — which translates into an HTML5-driven shopfront for many large consumer brands.

Interestingly, Apple has now twice promoted HTML5 as a content delivery technology, once by banning Flash from iOS devices and now (probably unintentionally) with its 30 percent sales tax. Given the number of iOS devices in the market, these are both significant pendulum swingers. There is no doubt that web apps still have some way to go to match the best in native apps from a usability perspective, but it’s events like this that get the best and brightest developers working on solutions to close that gap more rapidly.

So, can we now answer today’s question of native or web app on mobile? I think there are still strong arguments for both. Every app must be considered with its intended functionality, projected revenue model, proposed audience and expected lifetime. But if you’re prepared to put your time and money behind an HTML5 solution now, you may well reap the benefit of the increased focus this technology is receiving by the big eCommerce and media brands.

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