What if every time you clicked on a Google search result you had to download a separate app to view its contents? What if you had to do that for every individual website you wanted to visit?
Sound like a nightmare? According to search marketing expert Danny Sullivan, it almost happened—until the web browser saved the day, providing a universal window to the internet.
Now, with the rise of mobile, we’ve been watching history repeat itself. Demand for a rich user experience has fueled the evolutionary rise of native apps over web apps. But “the world of apps has grown beyond a healthy size,” says Google designer Donny Reynolds. Our beloved apps have become content prisons where “creative and original content are locked up in proprietary platforms.”
This has left us with a fragmented internet haunted by app-weary users reluctant to initiate another download just to read the latest news story.
But not for long. We’re headed toward an “app-less” mobile universe where, instead of existing as separate downloads, apps will follow us from device to device delivering exactly what we need in the moment.
Thanks to dynamically loaded content, apps will become more flexible, less cumbersome, and more capable of providing a truly seamless internet-to-mobile experience—all without the hefty coding and cross-platform updates that plague native app development.
HTML5 vs. native apps
When it comes to developing either customer-facing or employee-facing apps, the big question for enterprise IT has been whether to go HTML5 or native.
Mobile apps written in HTML5 or similar technology allow enterprises to quickly deploy solutions without relying on heavy coding. Unlike native apps, which are downloaded in their entirety as self-contained universes, HTML5 apps often consist of a lightweight framework that dynamically pulls in content as the user needs it.
Because HTML5 allows fast and affordable cross-platform mobile app development, many companies have relied on it for building not only responsive websites, but also their mobile web apps. Even Facebook became one of the first major companies to jump on the HTML5 train, initially using it as the basis for both its iOS and Android apps.
While not all HTML5 apps are able to deliver quite the user experience a native app can, Google’s progressive web apps are getting there. Progressive web apps are cross-platform, can leverage much more of a device’s full functionality and they can operate offline. In the marketplace, user preference has fueled native app development over HTML5 (and by extension progressive web apps), but now the increasing demand for mobile apps coupled with the more responsive, any-device experience is pushing us in a new direction.
Breaking down the app barrier
The problem with native apps becomes apparent when you look at mobile search results. Until recently, a Google search would push you toward mobile web pages. But with the growing number of app-only publishers and services, there’s often no web page to point to.
How does a mobile web user even find, let alone access, in-app content? Tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have been working on it, pioneering solutions such as:
App indexing and linking
Before app-only content can appear in search results, it has to be indexed. Both Google and Apple allow third-party content providers to show in-app content in search queries. (Of course, it only works if the developer actively implements it.)
Now that we have in-app content showing up in our search results, app linking is what allows us to access it. It bridges the app gap by linking you to whatever app best presents the content you want.
“Every time you tap on a YouTube link in another app and the YouTube app opens up to play the video, you’re experiencing it,” Reynolds says.
But the user experience falters when you don’t have the YouTube app installed and instead get directed to the app store to download it. What if you don’t want to download the entire app just to watch a 30-second video?
To surmount the installation barrier, Google has spent the past year experimenting with app streaming. In a recent pilot test, in-app content from nine U.S. publishers became available for streaming on select device platforms.
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’re searching for a hotel room in New York, and you get a result from the Hotel Tonight app. Instead of taking you to the app store, clicking the link streams the in-app content right into your mobile browser.
“There’s no need to worry about whether you want to invest the time and bandwidth downloading some app for a one-time use,” Sullivan says. “If it works as promised, you’ll be able to browse within apps with the same type of experience that you browse web pages.”
While Google tests out app streaming, Apple is working on its own version, known as On-Demand Resources (ODR). This technology initially downloads just a small core app, then downloads additional content as needed. A game app, for example, might start out with just a few beginning levels and then downloads more as the user progresses.
All of these technologies are pointing the way to an “app-less” future—one in which apps no longer behave as self-contained universes but as windows onto multiple interconnected worlds. Much in the same way HTML5 ads follow you from device to device, apps of the future will show up wherever you are, without requiring a separate download just to view a single piece of content.
As we move toward this new vision, enterprises will find it easier and more affordable than ever to provided flexible content to employees and consumers alike, wherever they go and whatever device they use – without the bloat or inconvenience of “native”.
Watch this short video to see how Sapho provides employees with personalized and relevant tasks and information wherever they are, on any device: