The mobile app versus web app dilemma continues to haunt the major e-commerce firms in the country. While Flipkart partially rolled back their plan to go ‘mobile app only’ version and have introduced ‘Flipkart Lite’ that enhances the user experience of their web app, especially over mobile browsers. Myntra, which became the first app-only e-commerce firm in India, has taken a step back to introduce a mobile-friendly web app similar to that of Flipkart. Such companies are now focussing on a ‘mobile only’ strategy rather than an ‘app only’ approach.
There are various reasons why this debate of mobile app versus web app has taken centre stage in India, more than in other countries. Smartphone shipment in India contributes to about 7% worldwide and is expected to reach 10% by 2017 (Statista.com). As per IDC, the Indian smartphone market saw 26.5 million units being shipped in the second quarter of 2015, which is up 44% from the same period last year. The mobile broadband subscriptions are growing almost double from last year to reach 100 million. At the same time, mobile apps allow companies to deliver more customised and targeted information to their consumers, improving customer engagement, Hence, with the near universal access though mobiles, and a more compelling user experience, it is only natural that most of the e-commerce transactions are being done using mobile devices. It is estimated that for the larger e-commerce players, anywhere from 50-90% of their transactions would be mobile originated.
On the other hand, this is not the most convenient usage for most of the users in India who use sub $100 phones, with limited phone memory and hence need to juggle which app to keep on their phones. Further, while companies would want to ‘lock in’ users and encourage them to use only their apps to launch a service, this is historically not the way users have engaged on the web. In many situations, we would still prefer to use a search engine to identify potential providers of information or services, and then navigate through to one or more of them, based on the information available on each of them. This is particularly true for services or
information we access occasionally. Since apps are often ‘closed systems’, they are not indexable by search
engines, and hence may not appear in search results—essentially creating a divide in the Internet between the ‘web world’ and the ‘app world’. This clearly presents a challenge for smaller and lesser known players while potentially reducing the information available to users.
The third set of players affected by the ‘app only’ trend is the search engines, particularly the giants like Google. The closed app systems can potentially make large parts of the Internet inaccessible to the search process, impacting the business model of such firms. As a first step to address this, Google introduced App Indexing—and deep links—which
allows developers to introduce hooks into their apps, so that aspects of apps can also be discovered, ranked and delivered as part of search results. This could
enable users to discover information in apps they have already installed, or be informed about apps they could install. This feature is currently available for Android and iOS developers.
While this begins to address the possible web/app divide, it still requires users to install apps before they can access a service provided through that app—which implicitly would limit the number of apps a user installs. To address this, Google
announced last month an experiment that lets Android users ‘stream’ a select handful of apps through mobile search without downloading them. The enhanced mobile search on Android smartphone will fetch not only web pages but also related mobile apps. If the user decides to use the app, it will be streamed on to the browser without the need for the user to download the app. As per Google, the user experience of the streamed app is almost the same as that of a native app. Using this clever move, Google gets the eyeballs of app users for possible ad-based monetisation and is likely to garner a stronger hold of the mobile search space.
While it is still uncertain whether the app steaming will work in the poor network conditions in our country, it will definitely save precious phone memory, and save time for downloading. On the other hand, it has moved the native app providers to a level playing field. While this move by Google will be welcome by the app providers who have a smaller user base, it is likely to threaten those with a larger user base who enjoy their comfortable niche position of customer engagement.
It is only natural that Google will be keenly interested in how this debate shapes up in India as it is the second largest mobile search market in the world, next only to US!
Both the writers are Professors at IIIT-Bangalore