“Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Eric Berry, CEO at TripleLift.
The steady march from desktop to mobile has been an incontrovertible truth over the past several years. While it is obvious that mobile is the future, it is decidedly less clear how mobile will look in two to five years.
The first battle between apps and mobile web was decisively won by apps. While certain pockets of resistance exist, most time spent on mobile devices occurs in apps. Is this battle truly over or are the lines simply being redrawn?
App remains the primary form of engagement. Monetization lives with engagement so mobile monetization has focused on in-app experiences. Apps have primacy through home screen placement, offline behaviors and access to operating systems. Mobile web, meanwhile, is largely a poor experience with slow page loads and ads that move or obscure content. This compounded the advantages of apps and their relative share of engagement.
Google’s AMP Play
Content consumption moving away from the web shifts the balance away from Google as the nexus. Meanwhile, improving portability between iPhone and Android improves Android’s market position. The first and most obvious step was improving the mobile web experience, which Google attempted with Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), a strongly opinionated framework for how web pages must operate. The content must be loaded in a certain, very optimized fashion. This reduces the flexibility for the publisher but also greatly improves the speed and quality of the user experience.
Monetization is challenging as existing display ads simply do not function well in this environment. AMP for Ads is a new framework that optimizes the mobile ad experience for AMP and, as a result, improves overall engagement. AMP for Ads, however, requires a complete reimplementation of ads, meaning today’s ads and ad providers will need to overhaul their architecture for AMP for Ads. This is a substantial undertaking and will require completely redesigned advertising platforms. The result, however, is a dramatically improved mobile web experience.
AMP allows mobile websites to simply function better – they are faster and more elegant, given the constraints of mobile devices. Poor site design and implementation were reasons that at least some content consumption moved to apps. But AMP alone does not, and is not meant to, address much of the distinction between mobile web and app.
Other meaningful differences include the behavior of the app or site when there's no internet connection, the ability to save past behavior and data, access to the device itself, such as the accelerometer, access to the notifications functionality, whether it can live on the home screens and whether it has to be downloaded before its use.
There has been meaningful movement to eliminate all of these distinctions – mostly by Google and Android. This comes in two flavors, neither of which are fully available but both are very promising.
The first is instant apps. The challenge that instant apps solves is that an app cannot be used until it is installed, which may be a time-consuming process, and installed apps are often never used again. If a search is best answered by a single "page" in an app, such as making a reservation in the OpenTable app, the process to get the user there involves a stop in the app store and then downloading what may be a substantial app, which may take several minutes.
The instant apps framework lets developers modularize their application, and only a small fraction needs to be downloaded at any given time. With instant apps, the app can be deep-linked from the web or anywhere, without requiring a lengthy download. This is very new and currently only available for Android. It potentially requires meaningful re-engineering of existing apps, but may result in much higher interoperability with search and other apps.
The actual uptake among app developers remains to be seen. Instant apps do not necessarily change the monetization paradigm for apps, but they may change the thinking around apps. The driving force in mobile app monetization is app installs, and if installing apps is significantly less relevant for many apps because deep linking can be more effective, then app developers may move away from app-install advertising and toward deep-linking partnerships.
Further, instant apps potentially make the web more powerful because more functionality can be accessed directly from the web. In turn, this may mean app install budgets would be redirected toward search, where the instant apps would be accessed – and then, of course, toward remarketing to prompt a full install.
Progressive Web Apps
The other major initiative is progressive web apps. This is also a Google and Android framework for now.
The progressive web apps can also live in the application home screen on Android – meaning it can be "installed" from the web. The benefits are tremendous for progressive web apps, including that they are theoretically cross-platform on an open spec; though Safari doesn't actually support it now, it included service workers in its five-year plan, which may mean there will be some movement in this direction from Apple.
Progressive web apps can also be updated immediately, without needing to go through app store updates. This means that, but for the performance needs of certain apps, much of the functionality for most apps would be available through a progressive web app.
If it's successful, progressive web apps could be the framework for a reversion back to web as the hub for engagement. This, in turn, could drive monetization toward progressive web app-friendly monetization, which in turn may lead to HTML5 ads that operate in a more web-like context or even rich functionality that is additive to the experiences provided by progressive web apps.
Between instant apps and progressive web apps, the challenges of apps and web pages are addressed in different ways. They remain very different approaches and are not a unified answer. Both speak to a continued push toward app and web frameworks converging.
That said, apps do remain the current standard and will likely remain so for some time. Both instant apps and progressive web apps are very new and require significant investments by developers to support, and it's unclear if either will actually catch on. Further, both are only currently supported by Android. Apple has significant incentives not to support frameworks that enable easy cross-platform development and allow developers to bypass the app store. User lock-in, platform differentiation and revenue from the app store are very important to Apple's strategy.
But it is very likely that both will become important in the future, and both may play important roles in mobile monetization strategies going forward.