Editor’s note: Leslie Townsend is president of Kinesis Survey Technologies, Austin, Texas, and a founding member of the Mobile Marketing Research Association (MMRA). This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the blog of the MMRA under the title “The battle between HTML5 and App-based research platforms.” A version also appeared on the Kinesis blog.
Last summer at the Market Research in the Mobile World conference in Atlanta, I offered up our top 10 predictions as to how mobile technology will significantly transform market research over the next few years. Included on the list was a prediction that “apps will be a mostly transitional phenomena in the industry.”
This prediction likely did not sit well with the market research software providers who have built their entire mobile offering on an app-based model. Some of these companies provide an app solution that is specific to one type of smartphone, while others provide multiple versions of their app to cover the most common smartphone OS platforms (Apple iOS, Android, Blackberry, etc.). Regardless of which smartphones their apps support, they all probably disapproved of my position. They were also probably quite happy to learn that the one-millionth app milestone was achieved in December, that the apps market more than doubled in 2011 and that mobile users now spend more time using apps than mobile browsers.
Given last year’s explosive app development and predictions for further app growth in 2012, do I still believe that apps will fail to sustain prominence as a major mobile research tool in the coming years?
You bet. While apps continue to be developed at a furious pace, in reality the vast majority of them are used by a very small number of mobile subscribers. Additionally, app usage seems to be reaching a peak. The fact that app usage time surpassed mobile browsing time last year is largely attributable to only one company – Facebook – and recent data from app analytics firm Flurry indicates that app usage now appears to be slowing. A study last year by Localytics found that one in four smartphone apps is downloaded but never used again. For market research, respondents may very well download an app for a one-time project or to join a panel, but continuous respondent use is required in order to provide ongoing value to the researcher. And in order to maintain continuous use (aka “the engagement factor”), ongoing development is essential. Both initial and ongoing app development can be a substantial endeavor. According to Deloitte, to reach more than 90 percent of all apps users, a developer may need to create versions for five different operating systems (plus HTML5), five major languages, three different processor speeds, and four different screen sizes. In other words, 360 variants of a single app may need to be created in order to fully cover the global market.
Since most research studies require a diverse and representative sample, multiple versions of the app must be maintained to accommodate a diverse group of mobile subscribers. And even for the research companies that have these necessary development capabilities, another significant challenge exists in how to deliver the app’s functional enhancements to users. There is no assurance that respondents will download updates and their failure to do so may result in significant usability and performance issues.
For these reasons and others, I stand behind my prediction. App solutions simply have more inherent limitations than mobile browser-based solutions. It is true that today’s mobile browsers have their own set of limitations, but with the advent of HTML5, mobile browsers continue to close the gap on desktop browsers. Over the next few years, the capabilities of mobile browsers will become increasingly powerful and will ultimately replace the need for the majority of research apps. I am not claiming that ALL market research apps will become extinct – there will continue be highly specific and targeted research initiatives that are better suited for custom app delivery – however the advantages of mobile browsers will result in their dominance for mobile market research. Further, since the browser-based approach has the ability to support all mobile devices, any market research company that spends money developing device-specific apps for solutions that can be more readily supported via a browser will be at serious financial disadvantage.
It will likely take another few years for HTML5 to roll out its complete feature set and gain wide adoption, but it will happen. Benefits in terms of device flexibility and cost, as well as factors such as lower battery consumption and ease of delivering functional updates, will ultimately win out.