The past, the present & the future of mobile apps

The Digital Brew : Episode 1. We chat about the evolution of mobile app development. What are the pros and cons of native apps v web and what does the future look like for mobile apps?

You are reading: The past, the present & the future of mobile apps

To kickstart our Digital Brew series, I spent time chatting about mobile app development with Ryan Kelly from Monkey Source.

Ryan is a ridiculously experienced mobile app developer and has been involved with apps since the days of palm pilots. I could think of nobody better to discuss the past, the present and the future of mobile apps:

The past, the present & the future of mobile apps

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Joe: Hello and welcome to our very first edition of the Digital Brew. We’re here today in the Whalebone Pub in Fingringhoe. We’ve decided to go mobile because I’m talking about the past present and the future of mobile app development with Ryan Kelly from Monkey Source. Ryan, thanks a lot for joining us today perhaps you could start by giving us a bit of history about yourself, you’ve got a great history of app development.

Ryan: Yeah sure, so I’ve been developing apps for, well, since 1999-98 Windows CE Palm Pilot days. And so, yeah, a long time developing apps. In recent years… the last five years or so Monkey Source the agency has come about so now we’re a small team we focus especially on mobile and embedded apps.

Joe: Embedded apps, and that’s fantastic. And you personally wrote the first-ever London tube app!

Ryan: Yeah one of, so for Palm Pilot, actually my dad wrote one for Windows CE at the same time as well and that got us into mobile apps from the sort off University stage.

Joe: Good, so you’re pretty well qualified to talk about the history. So starting with history of mobile apps, it strikes me that traditionally you really had the option of native web apps – or sorry,  a native app versus a website or a kind of a mobile website.

Ryan: Yeah so going from when Apple released the iPhone and the App Store’s came about yeah there was this web versus native argument that swings back and forth, and the web wasn’t really ready for apps at that stage and we had WAP before and then we had smart iPhones could run the mobile web but it really wasn’t good enough for a slick app. So the App Store’s came about, there was this big gold rush and, you know, “there’s an app for that” came about.

Joe: Yeah, and what do you think I mean if you could summarise perhaps the key strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Because, you know, I’m sure most business owners had the choice of “do we do a native app?” and course that means iOS it means Android and or you know Microsoft in some instances. What…  if you could summarise the key strengths and weaknesses of each each approach?

Ryan: So traditionally kind of the headline is that native apps you’re going to get better performance, better user experience, it’s a slicker, dedicated app. But it’s gonna cost you two to three times the amount,  you’re gonna need dedicated teams for platforms.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: So the web’s always been write it once, run it everywhere not as good performance, native you can get that performance, you can get that hardware. And that, that’s been where it started and really to get a good app experience companies quickly realised they needed native apps in the early days.

Joe: Yeah do you think the… so you’ve got more control with an app. It’s only iOS particularly where you’ve got the walled garden, you’ve got fixed resolutions, you know exactly the hardware you’re going on. Do you think that helped give a better experience for app users versus the mobile web user?

Ryan: Yeah, definitely in the early days I mean responsive web design came around to fix a lot of the formatting issues and the size issues, but you still have better control you have slicker transitions, between screens, you had some offline data there, you know, web, every page was a request at least it would always be slower.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: And, yes, better control like you say with the App Stores and devices… that’s a two-sided coin because you need to be approved by the App Stores, especially Apple.

Joe: Yep.

Ryan: And then they may actually limit you getting in there or they may have reasons that they don’t like your app. So there’s advantages and disadvantages to that but they tend to give a better user experience.

Joe: I mean your history of development, yourself, what sort of problems would cause an app not to be approved, for example?

Ryan: Sometimes it can be silly things just by the naming of the app, recently we’ve had some not approved because they didn’t like the name. Erm, you put a word like ‘free’ in there and they don’t like that so they change their rules as a moving goalpost. And other times there’s a famous case of a weather app that was getting released that was really slick and Apple updated their operating system and felt that was replicating a piece of the operating system.

Joe: Oh right, okay.

Ryan: Yeah so a couple of years of development for some developer gets thrown away so you are at the mercy…

Joe: They wear the trousers, sort of, commercially. Okay and I suppose as a business owner you face that challenge. Do you think that a lot of businesses felt that they had to do apps? And, I mean, I know I’ve seen lots of apps that I’d think are total… totally pointless. And I think there is an app for pretty much everything… it’s an app that I don’t want an app for that, I don’t want to do that. Do you think now were actually reaching a point where things have matured a little bit…?

Ryan: Yeah…

Joe: …A little less frivolous perhaps?

Ryan: I think the early days of the App Store seemed to be the answer to a lot of businesses’ prayers. Get an app out there, you’re going to get seen, you’re going to get downloaded and you can produce silly apps like the Fart App and there were stories they were making 100,000 pounds a day from this Fart App! So there was this big rush definitely to get into those stores. And yeah, that time is gone, if you release an app now there’s a good chance it will never be downloaded.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: If you are downloaded there’s a good chance it’s not being used in 30 to 50 days so it’s definitely not the answer. You still need to run a good business, you need to serve your customers, it’s not necessarily an app that’s going to solve your problems.

Joe: Yes.

Ryan: But the same side to the web, you know, you can’t ignore web users because you’ve got an app anymore, you’re still going to have the web side and you need to be responsive, serve your mobile users etc.

Joe: So also the key advantage of the the mobile web approach, in theory at least, is compatibility. You should be able to develop once to deploy across multiple devices. If you’re doing it to browser standards you haven’t got to build this native app over and over and over again.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean the huge selling point of web and web technologies is it should be write once, run anywhere. It’s never as simple as that, but there is a huge saving it’s easier to get developers for, it’s cheaper to develop for technologies… and yes, you can run on all the platforms. Whether you wrap that as an app or you literally run it as a website. Yeah, there’s a huge benefit there and as the web gets closer to the native app experience you can see it… swinging back to the web.

Joe: Yeah well I think… I mean some of the early apps certainly that I’ve used we’re really nothing more than a wrapper for a web experience. Sort of a window that is this very, very thin app and it’s very reliant on the web technologies underneath that actually to kind of make things happen. And I suppose that gets us to the present, and I know for my personal use I almost avoid apps like the plague. I can spend a lot of time – actually not so much now but going back a year – looking at why is my mobile phone dying the battery and why have I consumed a tonne of data, and it was usually apps. And actually you know, for me personally I’m not a big Facebook user, but Facebook is notoriously… it’s terrible for sort of eating into your battery life. The BBC app, you know, I do use BBC News… all the apps I use to use I now have on my browser as ‘Favourites’ and I click from one… and to be honest I really struggle to notice the difference between the app and the website. And I think that – the advent of responsive web… if I was a website publisher, I think anybody would be mad to build a web side that’s just not usable at least, on a website. And I think the more advanced that responsive designers and developers become, actually, it’s an entirely different experience per device, it’s the same underlying website. And actually, it’s got advantages in terms of, you know for us as a marketing agency, I would rather market pages on a website and let mobile phones get to that. Do you have… have you experience at the agency, do you have more people now actually saying well we don’t need an app we want a better website you know we want a responsive website. Who needs apps?

Ryan: Yeah you get both I mean a lot of time our clients will come to us looking for an app and we will actually say, “what are the benefits?” and “do you realise a responsive website may get you those benefits and you don’t need the app”. But there is still this feeling in the industry that we need an app, otherwise, we’re not going to be seen. The truth is – you’re talking about those websites like the BBC News – if you go into the App Store and you search for news articles, the App Store won’t leverage any of those articles. So as a marketing agency or as a business trying to get your content seen, the app store don’t help you at all.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: You still need to be found on the web. And then you can try to drive people into your app or to your responsive website and get the app installs but there’s been this drive to get people installing the apps thinking it’s the Holy Grail, and as we’re watching the user interaction with the apps is not as high as it’s been and the drop-off is quite quick.

Joe: Do you think it’s a slight vanity metric the whole notion of how many app downloads you have…

Ryan: Yeah I believe, I believe it has been.

Joe: Is it beyond 90 days,the number of people who are using it on a daily basis…

Ryan: …Is almost zero. Yeah, after three months you’re down to 95% of people who aren’t using your app.

Joe: As little as that?

Ryan: Yeah after seven days we’ve lost 50% and few users, so there’s this constant drive to have to get people to install apps or try to bring them in and it’s much easier – businesses are finding – to get people back to that website.

Joe: Yep.

Ryan: So there’s marketing campaigns that you may run that bring someone back to your website that might be responsive but it will still try to get the person to install the app.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: And I think we’re now getting to the point where are a lot of businesses are questioning, “why? We’ve got them to the website, and we’ve got the reuse, what’s the benefit for the app?”

Joe: Okay.

Ryan: And there are some key benefits but for a lot of businesses probably not going to affect them.

Joe: Questionable yeah… and given the costs of that. How  about… I mean is security one of the issues for your clients? I mean I know that speaking to people, friends that they said they feel much more secure and safe using an app over a website.

Ryan: Yes…

Joe: Rightly or wrongly.

Ryan: Yeah there is a conception that an app is wrapped up, it’s secure, you’re not in a browser leaking your data. Mainly a misconception both are allowed to do the same sort of things but, you know, apps are now…  websites are moving to HTTPS, it can be secure that advertising… Google is not even you know… the organic results for non-secure websites are getting pushed down or users are getting warned quite heavily since January. So yeah, I feel that I still think it’s a conception that’s there in people’s heads something that needs to be addressed so that people know the web is fine.

Joe: Secure, yeah, I think that’d be across the web full stop, not just a mobile versus web. So if you think about the… the future of web – sorry mobile apps, I can keep hearing talk about Progressive Web Apps. In layman’s terms, what on earth is the Progressive Web Apps?

Ryan: It’s basically the web becoming ‘app-like’.

Joe: Right.

Ryan: So, so far we’ve been discussing a responsive website, it’s still a website in a browser that you go to a URL. And we have apps that you install and have certain capabilities like offline and push notifications and background sync, and the Progressive Web App is a new push of a group of technologies that lets the web become ‘app-like’. So you may go to a website such as BBC and it would say would you like to add this to your homepage, and when you do it essentially gets certain privileges that make it very ‘app-like’. It will be allowed to do background syncs- rightly or wrongly – it might upset your battery life…

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: … you know, they may behave! But it can store offline data and more than the website could. So you can come to that offline and still have your news served to you because it pulled it when you had a Wi-Fi connection before you left the house.

Joe: Right.

And you can get push notifications, and so you know something that… a big key benefit of that is that you can talk to your users you can notify them in news articles, breaking news or key deals and these Progressive Web Apps can have that. So they really are blurring the lines between the two.

Joe: As a user can you can you go into the app and define how the app can use your data how… whether it’s, whether you want to see push notifications, you know, the background data sync. Can you control that or is it…?

Ryan: Currently the control is limited, if you install a Progressive Web App you’re going to allow it to use offline capability much like you install an app. But those permissions are… look like they’re changing quite quickly, so you’ve got finer control of when you can install and what it can do. But currently once you’ve installed it to the home screen it gets certain privileges just from that very action.

Joe: Okay Google, particularly, seem to be pushing Progressive Web Apps more than most, why is that? Is that just as they have a sort of…

Ryan: Yeah, I think they have a self interested in web, obviously, you know all their money is from web searches and the technology’s getting good enough that they can do this. They probably are seeing a lot of problems with the App Stores that they’re struggling to solve, but content is still served through a browser, through a search. At the moment even the Google Play Store will not search the data within an app, it will just search the apps and they’ve tried deep linking instant articles which come up at the top as that little carousel now and they’re just trying to get that mobile experience quicker and more native.

Joe: Will theProgressive Web App still be available in the in the Play Stores and App Stores or will it be primarily driven by arriving at website on a mobile device?

Ryan: I think for the future there will be a strategy to have a responsive website you may upgrade that to a Progressive Web App and if you’re a big enough player you still have your apps as well…

Joe: Oh okay so they sit side by side?

Ryan: … They would currently sit side by side, but you know Progressive Web Apps could replace apps for a lot of companies certainly be the first one you produce.

Joe: Yeah I suppose – certainly, you know, for personal use – I’ll always look at… within the Play Store for me being an Android person… I will look at user reviews and that’s the single most important factor in if I decide to install this app or not and if someone says it kills your battery, it’s a nightmare, I won’t do it. If… I suspect that and it’s interesting in terms of sort of marketing apps in the future you’ll be reliant on Google, just normal search…

Ryan: Just normal search.

Joe: There’ll be reviews of these kinds of apps because they’re sitting outside the ecosystem of the App Stores, okay. What triggers the “do you want to download this Progressive Web App?” Because I don’t think I’ve had that myself.

Ryan: Yeah at the moment there’s probably three four percent of websites are going to have some of the Progressive Web Apps technology installed and they’re probably not going to be in the UK or US, so you may not have seen it. Traditionally… well currently the browser will trigger that, so as a developer you can’t keep showing a banner. You know, the browser will decide you’ve visited website…

Joe: … it’ll be a pop-up almost sort of invasive…

Ryan: …It’ll come up from the bottom “do you want to add this to your home screen?” if you dismiss it you’re unlikely to see it again. The browser’s in control of saying you come here quite often, this does have Progressive Web App technology would you like to add it. So Twitter’s probably the big UK one that’s converted this year. February, they launched the whole new stack as a Progressive Web App and it’s actually… you install that on your home screen you’re not going to know, the experience is… it’s first-class.

Joe: Okay. Is it a little bit like lots of forums? You go to a forum and they say, “do you want to download the app? It’s better”. Is it that sort of trigger to the user that it’s better thereafter?

Ryan: Yes, it’s a very similar trigger, but it’s “do you want to add this to your home screen?” that’s the wording that they’re using at the moment.

Joe: The big sort of elephant in the corner, I guess, is Apple. And if… I know that their revenue share models [are] very heavily biased towards Apple! And I think it was – was it one of one of the big publishers, you know, Telegraph or one of the big papers – basically said, well we don’t want to give 30% of all our revenue- recurring revenue – on a subscription model to Apple. Would a Progressive Web App in theory get around that problem if it’s not going via the app?

Ryan: Yes, yes it would. So you’ve had a number of public debates from the Financial Times, Amazon, Microsoft were slow putting Office in because they know once you’re in the Apple App Store they’re taking 30%, they do not seem to make deals, none that we know about.

Joe: Yes.

Ryan: So, especially the new stuff…

Joe: Is it a flat 30%? It is always 30%?

Ryan: It’s always 30% even on subscriptions. So, if you subscribe to the Financial Times, you happen to subscribe within Apple’s ecosystem, they take 30%. If you subscribed on their website downloaded the app and logged in, Apple don’t get a cut. So that’s the rules of that walled garden, so there’s a big advantage to being outside of that for certain subscription models, news sites etc.

Joe: Perhaps that explains why, you know, Google doesn’t have that model therefore it’s more motivated to improve the web for everyone.

Ryan: Google still has the model, but they also have the web that they make a lot of money out of! So yeah, most of their money is advertising, so yeah, it’s not such a big thing for them, you know? And Apple… it’s not that they’re refusing to do this they’re just one of the big players not on board yet.

Joe: Is it on the agenda but they’re not committing one way or the other?

Ryan: It’s ‘under consideration’ is Apple’s wording, but they’re famously tight-lipped so it may get announced in June or something, or they may decide that it doesn’t suit them at the moment.

Joe: And if they say no presume that’s going to be quite a big kibosh really on the future of this technology because still, yes Android’s growing, but you know, let’s wait til the iPhone 8. That’s going to be a successful handset, lots of people use iPhones and iPads so it’s… it does strike me that the power does reside slightly with Apple in terms of the longer term success of this technology.

Ryan: It does. I think I look at it the other way that if Apple say yes it’s kind of rocket fuel to the technology., everyone’s going… everyone’s going to jump on board very quickly. And a lot of people are holding off now to see what they do. But if you do write a Progressive Web App it will still work in Safari as a browser, it’ll still offer a great experience without some of the benefits which is offline and push notifications. And you can still wrap that as an app to get into the App Store. So what we’re advising with clients at the moment is a Progressive Web App can serve all markets except Apple. We will wrap that and put it in the App Store and we will have to have a marketing strategy to get you installs there and if Apple says yes to this, you can just probably just go with a Progressive Web App.

Joe: Yeah. I mean presumably Apple, if they make any money from it,  and you says it’s a wrapper, there’s no reason to suspect they won’t do that because if it’s a good user experience and it’s a popular app then that should and that probably will work.

Have, at Monkey Source, have you had clients asking you for Progressive Web Apps? Or is it more… well sort of is it so avant-garde that you’re sort of saying you might want to think about this? This is the emerging technologies. Because I’ll say that there aren’t many… there are few and far case studies that are proving it’s the way to go.

Ryan: Yeah well right now it’s us saying this is another option you have, so we’ll get clients saying we would like an app or we need an app and you know we sort of explain the development costs for iOS and Android, and you know that you could have just responsive website or we can get you this Progressive Web App which really does sit between the two and gives you the benefits of both.

Joe: Okay, will that mean you don’t need the… well, I know it’s debatable…  but, in theory, you won’t need both iOS and Android because the Progressive Web App will do both.

Ryan: Yes, in theory… and you won’t need the iOS team. So to write two apps we need Android dprevelopers and iOS developers, very different technologies, and we could
write the Progressive Web App with the one team just wrap it at the end for iOS. And it’ll be in the stores as a fully-fledged app, you know.

Joe: Okay and is it a fundamental technology? I mean, should the web team who are building the responsive data think about the PWA whilst they’re doing that, can you do both at one time, basically?

Ryan: Yeah 100% so, you know, writing a hybrid web based app or responsive website and a native app were completely different code bases or still are. A Progressive Web App is an enhancement to your responsive website today.


Ryan: So we have clients saying we have a responsive website, we’re looking to get into the app stores and we say we can just add on some of these Progressive Web App technologies and give you this offline experience, homescreen install, push notifications you know, we’re a very small team your current web team can do that. It’s a really nice… I think that’s why it should take off because it’s not…

Joe: Yeah incremental costs actually isn’t too bad and it’s, it’s probably still better than just a normal responsive website.

Ryan: Yes.

Joe: And it probably varies according to what it is. If it’s a news site, news is news, it’s text-based, you probably… it’s relatively quick to download,  you don’t need that background sync necessarily unless you’re on the tube or in the train and you need to get that data for your, you know, for your train journey or whatever it may be.

Ryan: Okay there any other kind of weird, wacky things you’ve seen recently that are worth talking about or is it sort of Progressive Web Apps, that’s where the main thrust of interest should be?

In terms of mobile development of app there’s always this decision each time: Do we did we go purely native? Do we write it in web technologies? That seems to be where we’re headed as an agency and we’re doing a lot of good work in that regard. But there’s new technologies coming out that let you write with web technology so Javascript the language of the web, sure but it creates two native apps out the back of it.

Joe: Yeah.

Ryan: we’ve got react native and and a bunch of others that are going down the route of write once but still push out the native, or write once, run everywhere. And it’s constantly changing but, you know, I’m excited this is a big, big improvement for the web and, you know, will be a game changer for a lot stuff we do.

Joe:Fantastic, and ultimately users benefit from this sort of homogenises experience across all platforms and everything.

Ryan, it’s been great speaking to you, thanks for your time where can people find out more about Monkey Source?

Ryan: On the web, yeah, our blog and our website’s up there so yeah if anyone’s interested pop along there.

Joe: Fantastic, well that’s it for Episode One hope you enjoyed that please do leave feedback in our… in the comments on our website we’d like to get some feedback we’ve got social media in the Army coming up in a couple of weeks so keep tuning in for that one and hope to see you soon. Thank you.

Apologies for the teething problems we had with the sound (mic was rubbing on Ryan’s shirt and it was actually pretty windy). We hope you enjoyed the chat and are now rushing off to build your progressive web app…

Thank you very much to Ryan for his time and to The Whalebone Inn for hosting us. I can wholeheartedly recommend Monkey Source if you need a highly skilled development agency and you should definitely stop in at The Whalebone if you are ever in the area.

The Digital Brew is a new initiative and we welcome your feedback, so please let us know what you think in the comments below. We have one more episode already filmed and two more planned, but would love to hear from you if you are interested in being involved.

Watch this space for Episode Two in which I chat about social media and the army.


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