Apps vs. browsers – who wins?

Are you building an app for that?

The app is one of the most disruptive innovations of the last decade and has been pivotal to the commercial success of the smartphone and for the overall ‘mobile economy’.

Appsolutely fabulous, mostly

Millions of apps are now available to mobile consumers, with the vast majority of our time spent interacting with our smartphones via apps that enable social networking, charting your route and ordering (and paying) for transportation.[1] The app market in aggregate is lucrative, but this value is spread thinly across thousands of publishers. Over the last eight years, app stores have generated tens of billions of dollars in revenues via download sales and in-app payments.[2] The most successful apps have been downloaded over a billion times.[3]

It would therefore appear logical for all companies to want to create an app. If smartphone users want to spend the bulk of their time in apps, then shouldn’t all companies, from retailers to news providers and airlines, want to create apps.[4]

However, apps may not always be the best approach for businesses. While for some categories – most obviously games – the app is almost always the right way to go, there are many instances in which a browser is preferred. In a few cases obliging users to download an app might deter potential customers.

When apps are preferred

Apps tend to be most successful for processes or tasks which are completed regularly. Among Australian smartphone owners, over two thirds (71 per cent) would typically use an app to check the weather, rather than a browser. Checking the weather is a simple process and is able to employ smartphone data inputs such as GPS, forgoing the need to type in the name of a town or place. An app can meet this need with a single touch. For more occasional tasks where content is not uniform, such as shopping, using a browser may be more effective – and for this to work on smartphones, companies should create mobile-optimised websites.

When browsers are better

Shopping online via a phone, whether looking at products or purchasing, is a common activity. An app may be suitable when making regular purchases, such as the weekly order from an online grocer. But when searching for a new outfit the first action might well be a browser-based search as this would return results from a range of retailers, not just a single one. According to our research, an online search for a product is over three times more likely to start in a browser (50 per cent) than in an app (15 per cent).[5]

A browser-based search returns hyperlinked results which, when clicked, open up webpages. Requiring a potential customer to download an app before seeing a product may put them off. Similarly a browser would be the likely starting point for the majority of people when booking travel – but not for the minority of frequent travellers, for whom an app is preferable.

BOTTOM LINE – the continued benefits of browsers

One of the core benefits of access via a browser is its immediacy. When looking for information or a service that has never been used before, a browser is ideal. A browser, for example, can show shop opening times, directions to a location or reviews for a product within seconds.

By contrast, an app must be downloaded before it can be used. Obliging a user to download an app to find out a shop’s opening times, or to be able to pay for on-street parking, may deter the user who may not want to wait for the app to download, or pay for the cellular data usage required.

One approach to delivering the functionality of an app without the inconvenience of requiring a download is to enable individual components of an app to be searched for and then streamed to the device via a browser.[6] When a user chooses to stream an app in this way, the app loads in a virtual environment and the user sees a copy of the app.

While apps can be very useful, smartphone owners are in general disinclined to download them in large numbers. Among smartphone owners aware of how many apps they have, the majority have downloaded 30 or fewer. Only 10 per cent have downloaded 30 or more.[7] The reluctance to download large volumes of apps spans all age groups: even among 18-24 year-olds the majority have downloaded 30 or fewer, and only a tenth have 30 or more. This means that most users download just 0.00001 per cent of the millions of apps available.


[1] Number of apps available in leading app stores as of June 2016, Statista, 31 August 2016,, App Store Metrics, Pocket, 31 August 2016,, Seven Years Into The Mobile Revolution: Content is King… Again. Flurry Insights. 26 August 2015. See:

[2] Apple moves to maintain the allure of its apps, Financial Times, 13 June 2016,

[3] See WhatsApp has grown to 1 billion users, The Verge, 1 February 2016,

[4] Google just took a much clearer stance on banning ad blocking apps (but ad blocking browsers are still OK), Business Insider, 2 March 2016,; Apple pulls the plug on in-app ad-blockers, MacWorld, 9 October 2015,

[5] UK edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, May–Jun 2016, Figure 26

[6] Instant Apps on Android are the most fascinating thing Google announced today, The Verge, 18 May 2016,, See Google Search Now Surfaces App-Only Content, Streams Apps From The Cloud When Not Installed On Your Phone, TechCrunch, 18 November 2015:

[7] UK edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, May–Jun 2016, Figure 27

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