The answer is a bit cloudy and takes some digging to truly understand. First, you must acknowledge the difference between a mobile app and a mobile web site. I’m not going to dive into the details on this, but simply stated a mobile app doesn’t require network access, running entirely on the device versus a mobile website where you have to connect to a site and transact data (bandwidth).
Now, there are many more differences… speed, user experience, functionality, and more. I will assume you understand these differences. However, I hadn’t really considered speed as an issue until it was mentioned at the Washington DC Digital Media Conference this summer by the mobile panel session I attended. Incidentally, this very issue was briefly discussed, though I found that the panel was quick to dismiss the issue (app vs. mobile web site).
I contend that the mobile app (as we know it today), will be obsolete in less than five years.
I know, that’s a profound statement. I’m not saying the world is going to end, though. I’m just saying that the uniqueness of a mobile app is the fact that it is taking advantage of some shortcomings within the mobile web sphere and that the gap in those features will soon erode.
For example, mobile bandwidth will become nearly ubiquitous within five years to the point that data plans will be second nature. As smart phone device penetration eclipses 35% of the market this year, and probably approaches nearly 100% of the Western/Asian markets by 2016, data plans will come right along. Remember that 10 years ago, an unlimited mobile minutes plan for just phone calls was unheard of, and similarly for texting… soon too, unlimited data plans will be common place.
Next, mobile device ability to render the mobile web more consistently across the many different devices, to provide a consistent user experience will soon improve dramatically. In fact, we have already seen great strides in this area thanks to better OSs, browsers and standards.
Third, developers will learn to better leverage newer (more modern) development techniques and CMSs that take a single website and render efficiently for the best user experience across a variety of devices — smart phones, tables and desktop. This is an important concept here, and the one I believe that will truly eradicate the need for many mobile apps. Universities will simply build ONE website, and then the CMS (content management system) will deploy it to the variety of devices dynamically.
Saving universities gobs of money, time and resources by reducing the number of different “things” a company needs to build will ultimately spell the end of apps. Unis don’t want to pay for and maintain multiple “things” (apps and sites). They want to build once, maintain centrally, and deploy dynamically.
Now, a good friend and colleague of mine, Daniel Odio (who by the way is a mobile app genius), made a very compelling comment to me recently. He said, (in reply to my comment that HTML5 and the mobile web would make apps obsolete) that I was comparing mobile apps today with the mobile web in five years. Good point, I was! I also concede that I’m not an expert on mobile apps, though I do have some experience in the area. And, I will also say that I’ve built several mobile sites and have been experimenting with a number of mobile CMS platforms. I also will say that Daniel’s company (www.appmakr.com) is really freaking cool and I’ve used it to build two mobile apps already (soon to be published once Apple approves my developer account).
I am not sure what the future of the mobile app is and what advancements are in store for this very popular media format. I believe that within the decade mobile phones will have a projector capability that will project the screen onto a surface and use infrared and spatial awareness to enable you to interact with the projected image as if it were a touch screen… so maybe mobile apps will take advantage of that. I also believe that phones will enable holography in a similar manner. But until then, I believe that mobile websites might be a better long term investment, especially if you are looking to build off of your existing web experience and just bring it to the mobile space. It might be cheaper and easier, but it might just not be as cool. Cool comes at a price, and building an iPhone app is not cheap. But, for that matter, neither is a great web site.
So, if your school hasn’t built an app yet, if it is thinking wisely (and economically), it won’t. Now, that’s not to say some crafty student won’t create one as a project for a course. If your school has a mobile app, don’t expect more or many improvements. They are simply too costly to maintain.
[Related: The Growing Popularity of Online Libraries]
By: Dan Soschin