Apple web browsing declining

Apple is losing popularity for web browsing

According to the latest web browsing stats released by Bango, across a wide range of websites targeting mobile phone browsers, the iPhone is losing ground to its competitors in popularity for web browsing. What might be the reasons for this?

When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone he made a big point of the fact that it browsed classic (PC) websites. On the other hand, Google, Nokia, BlackBerry and others encouraged developers to optimize websites to the screen size and touch navigation their devices. Google does a great job of adapting to different browsers, typically by detecting the browser and changing the site layout. Many sites have a “mobile version” – and so on. Apple on the other hand has encouraged the use of downloadable apps for access to services, and 3 years after the iPhone launch they have still not made easy to navigate from an iPhone. So, while site owners are encouraged to develop mobile websites for almost all handsets, Apple does not do so.

Second, Apple has “neutered” the Safari web browser to prevent it from downloading content to the iPhone. If a website wants to offer a podcast, music, video, train timetable, document etc. to a user, they normally just provide a link to a download. This model has worked really well on the web. You can navigate to what you want and then get it – the Apple browser blocks this functionality. You can’t download content to your iPhone via the web – you have to stream it (view but not download) or get it from the Apple app store. Of course Apple forbids the use of alternative browsers. The ‘exception’ of Opera Mini does not allow downloads – it is more of a ‘viewer’ – like Safari.

Third, Apple blocks Adobe Flash based websites. Millions of sites have been developed to deliver a consistent, high function usability across many devices – using Flash. Apple will not allow Flash on its mobile devices.

Finally, there is a general push by Apple to go to a download model. Rather than making a great browsable site, Apple encourages the development of rich applications – like newspaper editions or magazines.

So, it seems obvious at second thought that with so much impediment to web usage from both the user and the website owner direction, that people targetting iPhone go the ‘App’ route, and this in turn drives users to use apps rather than the web.

Back in 1992, Microsoft was resisting the arrival of the web. They saw that it had the potential to make the PC merely a terminal – rather than the essential device. I remember Bill Gates at a major industry conference – pushing his Windows vision – “Why would you access stuff through a modem when you can put 600MB on the front cover of Byte Magazine for a buck”. I’m seeing a similar behavior from Apple. Their goal appears to be to make a new, indispensible platform where users have to upgrade to the next Apple and where they control access to that device. A powerful web browser with ability to download content would blunt that momentum.

Users are driven to mobile websites by searching and clicking. Much of that traffic is paid for by people trying to get site visits. If you can’t deliver a good web experience to the iPhone users, you don’t invest your marketing in driving that traffic – you invest it in trying to drive app downloads instead – or on buying traffic on other devices.

Based on Apple’s resistance to the web, it is obvious that the momentum of web is definitely towards the other devices. They can either embrace that – and make the web more and more useful – as Google is definitely doing with each new release of the Android browser – or focus on taking on Apple in the app space, as Nokia seems to be doing.

My bet is on the web winning out, with apps becoming a vital part of the web but the browser reigning supreme as the way users engage with the information and services out there. As experience on the PC has shown, the web browser is the way to offer services economically and pervasively.

An indicator that the web is gaining will be when Apple is forced by user demand to allow the iPhone and iPad browsers to download files from web sites. I suspect that will be unlikely until open web browsers become much more popular in absolute usage than the iPhone, and for publishers to offer services that become compelling using such capabilities – making Apple users envious of Android and BlackBerry users. Despite the best efforts of Google and BlackBerry, I suspect that will probably take another 18-24 months.