A correction around the death of the mobile web

David Pakman of Venrock recently wrote a good piece on where we spend our attention. He’s absolutely right that attention is the true currency of the media business and drops a lot of knowledge.


He also repeats a common error. Specifically, Pakman says:

First, we spend 86% of mobile time in-app. The idea that the mobile web is a credible channel through which to reach consumers is largely disproven at this point.

Nope. Mobile web and mobile in-app behaviour are not binary. When users are in the facebook app, they spend a tremendous amount of time accessing the mobile web through facebook’s own in-app browser. The same for twitter and others. We enter social apps for discovery and then access the mobile web while still in-app. It is a mistake to conflate time spent on the mobile web with time spent in a traditional browser.

This is why when media sites talk about the astonishing growth of mobile they are generally not talking about their own apps where traffic behaviour tends to show a loyal but small and slow-growing audience. Instead the traffic that is swiftly breaking the 50% of total traffic mark is mobile web traffic of which more comes from social sources than anywhere else, and most of that is in-app (and depressingly for twitter, by an order of magnitude mostly facebook).

A more valuable analysis of whether the mobile web is a credible channel to reach consumers would be to:

– Separate time spent within the facebook/twitter/whatsapp/etc mobile browsers from native in-app behaviour and then combine them with traditional browsers to get a true picture of the mobile web’s share of attention.

– Remove from the pie chart the categories where, by their nature, brands do not have a meaningful opportunity to reach consumers (utilities/productivity/non ad-supported gaming etc).

Then one could analyse what share of the available channels for brands to reach consumers on mobile the mobile web represents. I’m willing to bet Mr Pakman a good steak dinner at the restaurant of his choice that it will surpass the credibility bar quite comfortably.

Now all this may change. The mobile web experience is a shit show. Facebook is pushing hard with its instant articles, Snapchat is experimenting with Discover. However, today, to analyse the mobile web without accounting for in-app mobile-web browsing is about as useful as trying to understand national infidelity rates by sampling Ashley Madison users.






3 responses to “A correction around the death of the mobile web”

  1. I’m pessimistic about the future of the mobile web. The shit show will not stop. Neither change.

    The mobile web today is a just a bad scaled down version of the full web. Sometimes it even fails to be that very bad scaled down version.

    Everything around the mobile web involved except the mobile web. Smartphones got cheaper and faster. Screens got bigger with higher resolution. Connectivity got faster too. It’s like when TV came out and radio was mainstream. People were doing radio shows in front of the camera. Everyone approaches the mobile web in a fixed and stiff content.

    This is where it gets ugly in my opinion. Having a proper, mobile first experience is heavy duty stuff. It requires lots of effort and money. Not to mention the death of GIFs.

    One way to make the mobile web better is to make it faster. That’s what Facebook did with Instant Articles. We built a plugin for WordPress doing the same http://wpinstant.io – feel free to remove the link if you want. There are a couple more things that can be done. Facebook seems to get it. Still they are interested in their platform only. Not the mobile web.

    Faster mobile websites are great but we need more of that. We need mobile first websites. I’m not convinced that’s possible in today’s landscape with the Buzzfeeds and Voxs around. They choose to build their companies old school – http://recode.net/2015/08/12/nbcuniversal-buys-big-chunks-of-vox-media-and-buzzfeed/ . Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

    I doubt there are enough money, patience and time to invest in a mobile first web experience. The lack of standards makes it harder. The audience’s attentions is also more diluted than ever before. Fragmented and fixed with ephemeral bits and bites of information designed to kill time and trigger emotions in exchange for time on site and ad dollars.

    I hope i’m wrong. I really do.

  2. Unless you work for Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, then don’t worry that 80% of people’s time is spent in those apps.

    Most likely, you will be charged with building something for much smaller clients. In many of those cases, a dedicated native app may not make sense. They need a website, and in most cases they also need their company & brand to have good exposure through social sites.

    Question: Why are users fine with using Facebook through the desktop browser, but not the mobile browser? You can’t blame the current state of HTML. It works great on the desktop.

    Remember when we used to install a bunch of software on our PCs, and most of that has now moved to the web? Most people that get a PC only need a browser, and nothing else.

    History repeats. Some think mobile is going all native apps. Maybe native apps will be strong for a couple more years (like software on earlier PCs), but then why not move towards all web? In fact, in a few years, everything we do “online” will not be device dependent. We could be checking our social site on a PC, watch, TV, phone, chip implant, eyeglasses, etc.