Native apps are those built expressly for a single mobile operating system, and marketed and downloaded through proprietary app stores.
In contrast, mobile Web apps exist online and can be accessed and used from any kind of phone or tablet.
In this report, we explore why consumers still seem to overwhelmingly prefer native apps.
Native apps dominate mobile usage, account for the lion's share of developer revenue, and perhaps not surprisingly, spark the most interest among those same developers.
That said, HTML5, the newest cross-platform version of the Web's publishing language, still holds out promise.
(For a primer on what HTML5 is, and how it fits into mobile, we recommend you read this report first.)
HTML5's advocates see its current stasis as a temporary speed bump, before mobile audiences and developers see the light and embrace apps on the more universal and less closed-off mobile Web.
Of course, it doesn't help that consumers, and even many app publishers, remain confused about what a mobile Web app is, and how it differs from a mobile website.
In any case, the W3C, a nonprofit collective responsible for advancing HTML, is working furiously on lingering performance issues and feature limitations.
But is it too late for HTML5? Will the native app tidal wave overwhelm it and relegate HTML5 apps to permanent second-class status?
In this report, we state our case for why HTML5 is in better shape than it appears to be.
Click here for the charts and datasets associated with this report in Excel→
Click here to download a PDF version of this report→
Click here for our March 2013 report, "HTML5 vs. Native: Where The Debate Stands Now."
As device types and operating systems proliferate, the case for universal Web apps becomes more and more pressing.
Feature gaps are being closed, and performance wrinkles being ironed out.
In terms of developer interest, HTML5 may lag behind Android and iOS, but it's seen an uptick in interest recently and ranks well ahead of other contenders for third-place status in the mobile platform wars, such as Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10.
While monetization of downloads is far more straightforward in the app stores, there are successful examples of mobile Web app monetization. And in-app advertising is always an option in mobile Web apps.
We believe that in the long run mobile Web apps will carve out an influential role in mobile, and eventually begin to win ground against native apps — much as Web apps like Gmail have done against PC software that you install on your hard drive.
But how long that will take is anyone's guess. Consumer addiction to mobile native apps and to the app store model has proven to be very stubborn.
The Native App Juggernaut
It's not just that native apps rule when it comes to usage. It's also that they're gaining a greater and greater share of user attention as time goes by.
Consumers have gravitated further toward native apps, and further away from mobile Web apps.
U.S. smartphone owners, for example, overwhelmingly favor apps to the mobile Web, and apps' share of monthly usage is only growing.
According to Nielsen, 87% of U.S. consumers' mobile Internet use on smartphones came through an app, up from 81% a year prior, and 73% two years ago.
The breakout was slightly less lopsided on tablets: iPad users spend 76% of their time using mobile apps.
Overall, Nielsen found that U.S. smartphone owners spend roughly 25 hours a month on mobile apps, versus 4 hours on the mobile Web.
Mobile apps' dominance is largely a function of the most popular activities on mobile — gaming and social networks — which are overwhelmingly consumed through apps.
But why would native apps' share of consumption continue to grow over time, rather than remain fixed at a certain share of usage?
For one thing, the mobile native app ecosystem continues to grow more sophisticated. Developers continue to build hundreds of thousands of apps for the native app stores. In particular, the main Android app store, Google Play, has come a long way in just a year or two.
Meanwhile, despite advances made by HTML5, its main programming language, the mobile Web remains more focused on presenting content in mobile websites, and is less adept at interactive app-like experiences that can be delivered by mobile Web apps.
That said, developer interest in HTML5 as a mobile development platform remains significant, according to the latest surveys.
Overall, some 65% of programmers say they are "very interested" in developing mobile projects for the platform, according to Appcelerator's quarterly survey, from April of this year.
However, that proportion has not really budged since mid-2011, when Appcelerator began tracking interest in HTML5.
That may be a sign that enthusiasm for the platform has stalled as it moves beyond the early hype stage and works on getting past its many kinks.
But a more recent study reveals that there may have been an uptick in interest.
Among several thousand mobile developers surveyed by Developer Economics in January 2013, 50% said they were currently using HTML5, while another 15% said they planned to adopt it.
But by July 2013, those numbers had shifted further in HTML5's favor, with 52% saying they currently use HTML5 and another 21% saying they planned to use it.
So, in all, 73% expressed interest in HTML5, up from 65% in January.
But how many developers use HTML5 as their main platform, versus those who dabble in HTML5 or use it as a development tool to supplement their primary platforms, which are likely to be Android or iOS?
In the Developer Economics July survey, only 17.3% of mobile developers cited HTML as their main platform.
So, there are at least two ways to look at the HTML5 story.
One is to say that it has failed to take off, and that it's somewhat marginalized. It's a kind of sideshow — a secondary technology for building and deploying mobile apps. iOS and Android are nowhere close to being dethroned.
But a different way to look at the data is to regard HTML5 as the third-most widely used mobile development platform, after iOS and Android. It is, in effect, the third platform everyone has been waiting for.
Not only that, but it's also a complement to the main native platforms.
Essentially, HTML5 acts as a facilitator for cross-platform development.
There are two ways HTML5 can do this. Mobile apps built around HTML5 can be wrapped in a shell of native code and deployed to the main native app stores. The HTML5 and related code acts as the kernel and helps developers avoid building a new app from the ground-up each time.
Or, developers can build ground-up, heavily customized native apps for Android or iOS (or both), and then target the rest of the mobile user base with an HTML5 Web app.
"HTML should therefore be seen not as competition, but rather as a complement to native platforms ... by lowering barriers to entry and exit from these platforms," according to Developer Economics.
The State Of HTML5
But plenty of developers still insist that HTML5 is not there yet. What do they mean? And what steps are being taken to address its shortcomings?
In June, the W3C published its latest review of the state of Web applications for mobile. It's basically a rundown of how far along HTML5 apps have come in accessing native device and platform features, and how many mobile browsers support the new capabilities. This last bit is crucial since mobile Web apps depend on browsers to power them.
The various technologies being developed are grouped into 12 categories.
The overall thrust of the document is that mobile apps built around HTML5 are making progress toward the kind of full-featured experience consumers have come to expect from native apps programmed specifically for Android and iOS, but that there are areas where progress is still tentative.
Some highlights from the document:
Graphics: Web apps are far along in allowing for scalable (users can enlarge them by zooming in) graphics that allow for "the creation of very advanced and slick user interfaces," according to the W3C. In other words, they're approximating the rich user experience that native apps have championed.
For example, one feature that is possible through an API but not widely deployed across mobile browser environments is the full-screen mode that can be crucial for mobile games.
Multimedia capabilities are improving. Video and audio playback has become a widely-supported and widely-used HTML5 mobile app feature. The capability to access audio and video content captured on mobile devices is becoming more widespread.
A few multimedia features are still in a more nascent stage: accessing and manipulating audio and video streams, recording them, as well as audio and video editing.
Responsiveness: HTML5 apps can be written so that the device type is detected, and an appropriate app version is delivered. That's important because of the variety of screen sizes out there. The layout, behavior and resolution are optimized for the screen.
More sophisticated features of this sort, such as delivering images of different resolutions to different devices, are still in development.
Notifications: Since mobile devices stay with users wherever they are, notifications reminding them of online or real-world events play an important role. Web apps have historically been limited in their ability to push notifications. Now, many mobile browsers (but not Safari) support a specification that allows developers to add notifications to HTML5-based apps.
User Data: Web apps are far along in their ability to store app data so that users can return to an app and pick up where they left off. Smooth offline usage is an area that needs more improvement.
Geolocation on Web apps is now basically a solved issue across mobile browsers, while integration with user calendars and address book data is still a work-in-progress.
But the real challenge may be monetization. How do you monetize an HTML5 Web app again?
Consumers are clearly hooked on app stores like Google Play and Apple's App Store, where they can enter their credit card information and easily download free and paid apps to compatible devices.
As a result, the app stores are also where the money is for developers, particularly since mobile display advertising is still an iffy revenue source for all but the largest mass audience apps.
The success of app stores helps explain why app developers are so fond of iOS and Android, while they're relatively lukewarm on HTML5 apps.
There is no single, well-known marketplace for HTML5 Web apps, although there have been early attempts to create one. Among these are Appticles, Firefox Marketplace, and Apps Fuel. The Financial Times continues to advocate on behalf of HTML5 and says there have been no drawbacks to its bet on the mobile Web apps.
But globally, 34% of app developers said they used Android as their main platform, which just edges out the 33% of developers who focused on iOS, and doubles the 17% who were HTML-centric, according to the Developer Economics July 2013 survey.
However, perhaps more surprising than the share of developers tilting toward each platform were the reasons why.
A majority of developers who favor iOS cite revenue potential as the top reason why they prefer it over other mobile platforms, according to the January survey, by VisionMobile.
For developers who preferred Android, speed of app development and low development costs seemed to be the big drivers.
For HTML5-focused developers, cost and speed were also the drivers, with an even larger share of developers citing these factors as the top reason they chose HTML.
It's in the revenue column where HTML5 really lags. Android developers reported in the survey that they were making $4,200 per month on average from their apps, while iOS developers were generating$5,200 monthly, and HTML5-focused developers averaged $2,900 monthly.
VisionMobile notes that their revenue data includes income from contract development, advertising, e-commerce sales, and licensing fees. So even when including revenue from other sources besides app stores, HTML5 still lags.
These results suggest that HTML5's disadvantage relative to iOS and Android is perhaps more a result of the monetization gap than the endlessly-discussed performance or feature-gap issues.
If developers and publishers could cash in on HTML5 Web apps to the extent they have on native apps marketed through app stores, developer interest in HTML5 could perk up.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Consumers remain completely hooked on native apps. In fact, native apps have come to dominate mobile usage more than ever, further marginalizing the mobile Web.
Although it's not a mobile platform per se, but a collection of standards for developing mobile Web apps, HTML5 faces the same challenges seen by all platforms vying for adoption: namely, the chicken-and-egg problem. Developers don't embrace HTML5 because consumers seem to lack interest, and vice-versa.
Nonetheless, HTML5 continues to make huge strides in closing the performance and feature gap with native iOS and Android apps.
Perhaps the single biggest barrier to HTML5 adoption that needs more attention is monetization. If HTML5 Web app stores can become truly organized, or if advocates can foster a culture of subscribing to or paying for Web apps, the tide could turn more in HTML5's favor.
Click here for the charts and data associated with this report in Excel→
More HTML5 coverage:
Going Hybrid: How Hybrid Approaches Are Blurring The Line Between HTML5 And Native
HTML5: It's Not Ready For Prime-Time
Emerging Markets Breathe Life Into HTML5 For Mobile
Nearly Two-Thirds Of Developers Are Using HTML5
Q&A On HTML5 With Michael King of Appcelerator
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