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India's Flipkart Throws Google a Bone in the Battle Between Mobile Web and Apps

The e-commerce startup launches a mobile site that's a mobile app in disguise.

Scott Barbour | Getty Images

In April, Flipkart, the highly valued Indian e-commerce startup, looked ready to kill its mobile website. Visitors were met with a full-screen message directing them to download Flipkart’s app. The move was interpreted as foreboding for Google, which makes considerable ad dollars from e-commerce companies and prefers the mobile Web to cloistered apps.

Not so. Turns out, Flipkart was actually working with Google in the interim to launch a new mobile website, built for Google’s mobile Chrome browser, that the companies say will meld the best of the apps and mobile Web experiences. It’s launching today.

Flipkart’s new mobile site
Flipkart’s new mobile site

For Google, the launch is a victory. The lion’s share of new Internet users will come online in emerging markets like India and on mobile devices, most likely Android ones. Yet if their online lives are relegated to apps, that denies Google the data and potential revenue streams it sees from the mobile Web. Should other companies follow Flipkart’s lead, Google will advance in its efforts to eradicate some of the distinctions between apps and the Web.

Flipkart began nudging users to its app because that was where it saw much higher engagement, said Peeyush Ranjan, its VP of engineering. Apps have benefits — a clean, contained design and offline capabilities. But they also demand frequent updates to stay current — developers submit them every couple weeks. That’s particularly tricky in countries like India where a bulk of people come online with low-end Android phones that are infrequently updated. To be current on the Web, just hit refresh.

So Flipkart developed a mobile site for Chrome that replicates several the features of its app. “What if we could do all that and yet retain the benefit of the Web world as well?” Ranjan asked. “Anyone who’s running Chrome will actually get an experience that will really give a native app experience a run for the money.”

Ranjan originally floated the idea with the Chrome team at Google, which he left in April. (He’s the third veteran Googler to join Flipkart this year; the latest came aboard last week.) The company, which is currently valued at a frothy $15 billion, has continued to raise cash to battle local rival Snapdeal and Amazon in India, where Internet penetration remains low but is set to grow and grow. A bulk of Flipkart’s transactions happen on mobile phones; during recent seasonal sales, that number neared 90 percent, Ranjan said.

Flipkart was able to built the site thanks to a trio of new tools from Google’s Chrome team. The first, called Service Workers, enables easier development in places with frequently crappy Internet (see: India). The others open up two features that have been the domain of apps — push notifications and home-screen access — to websites.

The Indian startup is the first to tap the Chrome tools fully, but Google hopes it will not be the last.

“Although other sites have used some of these features in isolation, FlipKart is the first mass-market experience to be built from the ground up to take advantage of them and show a complete end-to-end experience,” Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, product manager for Chrome, wrote in an email. “For developers who care about these properties but were not convinced that they could build something great, we hope Flipkart will show that this can be a reality.”

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