The decline of the mobile web

People are spending more time on mobile vs desktop:


And more of their mobile time using apps, not the web:


This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.

Moreover, there are signs that it will only get worse. Ask any web company and they will tell you that they value app users more than web users. This is why you see so many popups and banners on mobile websites that try to get you to download apps. It is also why so many mobile websites are broken. Resources are going to app development over web development. As the mobile web UX further deteriorates, the momentum toward apps will only increase.

The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g. link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).

This will hurt long-term innovation for a number of reasons:

1) Apps have a rich-get-richer dynamic that favors the status quo over new innovations. Popular apps get home screen placement, get used more, get ranked higher in app stores, make more money, can pay more for distribution, etc. The end state will probably be like cable TV – a few dominant channels/apps that sit on users’ home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance.

2) Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues.

Most worrisome: they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin). The open architecture of the web led to an incredible era of experimentation. Many startups were controversial when they were first founded.  What if AOL or some other central gatekeeper had controlled the web, and developers had to ask permission to create Google, Youtube, eBay, Paypal, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sadly, this is where we’re headed on mobile.

Four categories of Bitcoin-related projects

New Bitcoin-related software projects are launching every day. From what I can tell these projects fall into four main categories:

Bitcoin apps and services: These try to make Bitcoin more accessible, stable, secure, and useful. Examples: wallets, merchant services, fiat-to-crypto exchanges, crypto-to-crypto exchanges, Bitcoin derivatives exchanges, tipping services, and merchant microtransaction services.

Bitcoin protocol extensions: These are applications that use the Bitcoin blockchain as a global, secure, single-instance database and generally ignore Bitcoin-as-a-currency. Examples: Mastercoin, Colored Coins, and a Princeton project that is building a predictive market.

Altcoins: These are basically Bitcoin variants with branding and technical modifications (and their own blockchain). Like Bitcoin, the primary purpose is to allow the store and transfer of value. Examples: LitecoinDogecoin.

Appcoins: These are new projects that are inspired by Bitcoin’s architecture but are intended to do things besides storing/transferring value (they also use their own blockchain). Examples: Namecoin, Ethereum.

To me, the first two categories are probably the most interesting. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the development of Internet protocols like HTTP and SMTP, it’s that network adoption is key. There will always be better protocols, but the combination of broad adoption and open extensibility generally wins. (Although Naval and Balaji make a compelling case for Appcoins here).

Some thoughts on mobile

– People tend to lump smartphones and tablets together as “mobile”. This can be misleading. Ask people who run internet companies and they’ll tell you that user behavior on tablets is far more similar to user behavior on desktops/laptops than it is to user behavior on smartphones. That said, the software on smartphones and tablets is similar, as are the discovery mechanisms (mostly app stores) and monetization techniques.

– Microsoft is running ads making fun of the iPad for being a “consumption” device. Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say back in 2010 about creation (“productivity”) on the iPad:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

If you go back and look at the history of productivity apps you’ll see that each major user interface shift led to new classes of productivity apps. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processor applications like Wordperfect and spreadsheet applications like Lotus 1-2-3 were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when graphical interfaces became popular, presentation apps like Powerpoint and photo editing apps like Photoshop were invented. If the historical pattern repeats, productivity apps that are “native” to the tablet will be invented.

– App stores have had a few important effects: 1) They take 30% of revenue, which scares away most big companies (e.g. Microsoft) and also startups/venture capitalists. Not many businesses can survive an immediate 30% haircut. 2) They’ve led consumers to expect very low prices for software. It’s hard to imagine charging $30 let alone hundreds of dollars for software through app stores (although some mega-hit games do get near these levels with in-app purchases). This is why many big software vendors are scared. 3) The discovery mechanisms (e.g. top download charts) tend to have a rich-get-richer effect, making it very hard for software to grow from niches, as they often did in the past. Just as in the movie industry, the trend is toward creating blockbusters that appeal to everyone. The emergence of new app discovery mechanisms (e.g. FB & Twitter) might alleviate this problem.

– The best entrepreneurs understand these dynamics and have been exploring “attach” business models, which basically means charging for something outside of the app store, like offline products/services (e.g. Square, Uber), online services (e.g. Spotify, Dropbox), and sometimes even hardware. Most of the companies that have succeeded (= generate real revenues/profits) on mobile were either desktop incumbents (e.g. eBay, Amazon, Facebook) or have attach business models.

– Fans of Apple and Google have been arguing lately about which company is winning mobile. Apple has more profits, but Android has more users. But what really matters is when and if developers switch over to developing for Android first, or even Android only. For now, iOS users tend to monetize much better than Android users, more than making up for the smaller user base. The switch to Android first hasn’t happened yet, but at least based on conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, it seems likely to happen in the next year or two.

– Mobile has had a big effect on b2b software. People want to use their personal iOS/Android devices at work, and many people now have computers with them all the time who didn’t before. This has created opportunities for 1) traditional b2b software that is mobile friendly, 2) companies that support mobile devices for businesses (e.g. mobile security, compliance etc), 3) brand new categories of software for users who previously used pencil and paper for various business tasks.

Four types of mobile apps

If you are a founder trying to create a new mobile app or an investor trying decide whether an app has enduring value, it is helpful to separate the ways that people use apps into four categories.

1. Time wasters: Apps that can be used for short bursts when you are waiting in line, etc. The most popular time wasters are games. Some apps are used sometimes as time wasters and sometimes as utilities – e.g. Facebook is both a time waster (checking status updates few minutes) and a utility (sending Facebook messages).

Time wasters tend to be faddish. It is easy to get hooked on new games and also easy to tire of them. If you want to build a big company that builds time wasters, you need to build a machine that builds, markets and monetizes apps, as Zynga has done.

2. Core utilities: As a rule of thumb, core utilities are the apps on your home screen: camera, phone, contacts, texting, calendar, etc. Core utilities map to deeply engrained use patterns that usually existed before modern smart phones. In the past people might have carried around a paper calendar, a standalone camera, etc. Core utilities tend to be very sticky – if you gain widespread adoption for a core utility you can build long-lasting value.

One entry strategy for a startup is to replace a core utility. This is what Instagram did to the built-in camera app. It is unclear whether the “Instagram for video” companies are core utilities (video app replacements) or time wasters. Creating a new core utility that doesn’t replace an existing core utility is very hard. Foursquare seems to have done this for the users who regularly check-in.

3. Episodic utilities: Episodic utilities are apps that typically aren’t on the home screen but are extremely useful in certain situations. Some examples: Hipmunk when buying plane tickets, Uber when you need a car, and OpenTable for making restaurant reservations. Successful episodic utilities target a well-defined situation and then become deeply associated with that situation. Making an app that is too broad or has multiple use situations can hurt you. Because many of these situations involve purchasing, these apps tend to be monetizable.

4. Notification-driven apps: This is an emerging category. Android has had a good notification system for a while, but the iPhone only made notifications useful in IOS 5. People tend to enable notifications for communication apps like email, texting etc. Thus far, notifications for other apps haven’t gotten widespread adoption because, among other things: it is easy to annoy users by over-notifying them, and running non-communications apps in the background tends to drain battery life. Expect this category to grow as apps get smarter about when to notify, and battery life improves dramatically over the next year or two.


Offline first, mobile enabled

One of the major trends in tech startups what Fred Wilson calls “Mobile first, web second.” Instagram is a great example of mobile first. They barely had a website – it was all about the mobile app.

The excitement over mobile-first apps is justified. Smartphones have unleashed a wave of creativity, resulting in entirely new categories of applications. But to me an even more exciting trend is what people have been calling (for lack of a better phrase) ”offline first, mobile enabled” apps.

For example, Foursquare is primarily about improving your offline experiences (meeting friends and finding new places to go). And it couldn’t exist without smartphones (ok, Dodgeball existed on feature phones but had a fraction of the utility). Similarly, Uber couldn’t exist without smartphones. The Uber apps (one for drivers and one for customers), while essential, are all about enabling for the car service. Square is about making payments more convenient and giving small businesses better analytics. The mobile app is just an enabler.

It seems natural that the first wave of mobile apps would be about improving core smartphone apps (e.g. photo apps) or porting apps from other devices (e.g. games). And there is probably a lot of interesting innovation remaining there. But the really massive opportunity is dreaming up new ways that the little computers loaded with sensors that we carry around with us everywhere can improve our real-world experiences.