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Apps Over Sites: Why Business Must (Mostly) Evolve Away From the Web

Most companies outside the tech world (and a surprising number within tech) seem set on continuing an Internet strategy established in the ’90s.

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Digital content is now consumed more via mobile devices than on PCs (see Mary Meeker’s latest report), a trend that will continue growing throughout this decade.

Inexplicably, however, traditional corporations have still not adjusted to that reality. Visit the homepage of just about any financial service, airline, insurance company, grocery chain, real estate service, etc., and you will usually find a robust set of Web services — and somewhere to the side, almost as an embarrassed afterthought, a couple links to download the company’s app (an app which rarely reaches the same level of usefulness as the website). Most companies outside the tech world (and a surprising number within tech) seem set on continuing an Internet strategy established in the ’90s.

Meanwhile, whole industries are being eaten alive by apps. The dominance of Airbnb over hotels and Uber over taxis is not just attributable to the “collaborative economy.” I’d argue that their success is based just as much on their beautifully designed, easy-to-use apps and their ground-up, mobile-first business models. I’d go further and say this: Any legacy business which does not successfully transition to an app-centric strategy over the next few years will likely lose to a competitor which beats them to it.

Let me explain why, and add some important qualifiers:

Apps Are Personalized Storefronts for 21st Century Businesses

In the consumer Internet’s first two decades, a company’s website effectively acted as its virtual storefront — and consequently, was hobbled by the limitations of the browser, resulting in simplistic, one-to-many services disconnected from the needs of the individual consumer, with a bad user experience and terrible (if any at all) integrated payment mechanisms. PayPal, Google and even Facebook have tried to address these inherent shortcomings of the Web, to mixed results, with Amazon among the few companies to fully bridge the Web/mobile chasm.

Contrast the Web with what an app can offer as a virtual storefront: Apps remember your identity, with no login required after initial install, and can maintain a sustained connection between end user and company that persists whenever the phone is on (that is, almost always). Apps can send push notifications, extending active engagement over time. Not a one-to-many interface like websites, apps are effectively one-to-one. Typically covering a smaller set of use cases, apps are able to tailor their user experience to fit them — “book an appointment,” “order groceries,” etc. And unlike the browser on your computer, apps are integrated into a device we literally carry with us throughout our entire day and are thus more likely to build habitual behavior around.

For these reasons and more, apps are better for business than websites — and by that same token, a poorly designed app directly hurts the overall brand of a business. Banks don’t greet their customers with sticky counters, unresponsive tellers or a confusing floor plan. It’s strange, then, that so many banks have apps that force customers into the user experience equivalent of all that.

These realizations suggest a new Internet strategy which may seem radical, but I believe will soon become common practice:

Turning Web Services Into App Features

With the Web becoming less and less crucial to their customers, traditional businesses must now begin to move their customers (first gently, then firmly) away from their websites and toward their apps. I’m not suggesting that companies should squeeze their entire website into an app, but rather, to rethink their mobile strategy from the ground up, optimizing key Web services for consumption through apps. The next step should be to gradually replace the original Web service with a link to download an app that offers the same service, only on mobile. I’m convinced that those who either make this transition first, or create the best user experience for their apps, will be the leading businesses of this era.

None of this is to suggest that the Web will entirely go away for business, but rather that it should adapt to how we actually consume digital services today. As Peter-Paul Koch writes: “Do people want to put your icon on their home screen? If the answer is Yes, go native. If No, go web. But, I add, not web disguised as native.”

I’d also say that any Web service that requires quite a bit of content creation and/or excessive multitasking between multiple applications will probably require a mouse and keyboard for the foreseeable future. And to be sure, a small but stubborn minority will likely refuse to abandon their Web services, even when the mobile app analog is clearly superior.

At the same time, I’m painfully aware that app-based services have their own set of problems and limitations: Not only are they ill-suited for numerous use cases, they require iOS and Android versions of the same app, and are much harder and far more time-consuming to build and maintain. Which takes me to my final point:

How Search Engines Can Better Serve Our Move to Mobile

Ironically, the transition from Web to mobile is being slowed most by one of the companies that stands to gain from a predominantly mobile Internet: Google. Using your browser to search for a company or service on Google, you’re more likely to first see its homepage or Yelp listing than its app. Google recently added iOS/Android app discovery to its search results, but as a separate tab far less likely to be seen, let alone accessed, and even without deep linking.

Why not include apps related to a given search among the main top-level results? So, for instance, if you Googled “buy San Francisco movie tickets,” instead of just getting an assortment of Web links, you’d also get direct links to download apps best suited to complete your request with a deep link into the app that would keep the context of your search. (Apple could probably integrate this functionality with searches conducted through its Safari browser.)

Imagine an Internet remade for mobile, and the businesses we depend on every day built around that paradigm. It would be an Internet capable of creating direct relationships with each individual user, an Internet best prepared for our future of pervasively connected devices — and an Internet no longer defined by our computers, but instead, at last, by our daily lives.

Anders Lassen is the founder and CEO of Fuse, a UX tool suite for mobile app designers and developers. Reach him @mr60fps.

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