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Browsers, App Stores, And The Future Of Mobile

Ben Thompson from Stratechery just published a fantastic interview with Eric Seufert about Apple, Facebook, and Mobile Advertising. It's a wide ranging interview that touches on app stores, gaming, tracking, targeting, and likely motivations of each consumer Platform in the mix.

One of the most interesting things of all: Eric predicted this war was coming a few years ago.

And, reading through the Stratechery interview, I found myself furiously nodding with most - but not all - of Eric's points. Why?

Because, for a few years, I've been wondering when the paradigm shift would start.

The end of app stores

Just over five years ago, shortly after I joined Intercom, I penned my first post for the Inside Intercom blog.

The end of app stores (as we know them) was my first attempt to describe the behavioural change of the App Store as a destination to discover new apps. Contextual discovery was a growing trend - embedded experiences in messengers, across platforms, and even in search results. To quote the post:

"Today’s solution to getting discovered on app stores is simple: cold hard cash. App installs are bought, not earned."

It's interesting to compare my observations then to Eric's observerations today. In his own words:

"I think Apple sees that the App Store has basically become irrelevant as a point of content discovery. It’s basically this kind of frictional, annoying moment between clicking an ad and installing an app."

Today, the contextually relevant embedded experiences that create installs are sprinkled across a variety of apps: messengers, social networks, mapping tools, ads and more. App discovery has been unbundled. That must be a scary feeling if your OS was - in effect - the incumbent bundle.

Browsers, not apps

There are two aspects of this - both now-emerged trends - that Eric and Ben didn't really touch on, but feel important to me: the rise of the mobile web, and growth of internet speeds on mobile.

I've long been a believer that native apps are good for some things but not all things. Web app developers are spoiled for choice these days. From React frameworks like Gatsby.js and Next.js to no-code platforms like Bubble, creating high performance, native-feeling web apps is faster, cheaper, and easier than ever. Certainly easier and cheaper than building native apps.

Web apps bypass traditional "app stores" - creating a supply problem. Traditional "native" mobile OS app stores relied on a constant, growing stock of native apps. If growth of this stock slows, growth of user loyalty and attention slows, too.

Eric touches on this point a little bit, in the context of mobile advertising:

"...Apple is trying to regain control of that because if Apple cripples advertising, which it basically is doing, mobile advertising — this is all happening within the context of all this stuff that’s happening on the browser, which we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole, but Apple has been the instigator of all of that too."

At the end of the day, we don’t share apps, we share URLs. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Google Chrome are - in effect - browsers. And, with Chromium and Android becoming best friends, the OS and the browser are becoming one. I'm writing this on a Chromebook.

This feels like the larger "war" happening here - browser and OS wars vs of privacy and tracking wars. As I said a few years back, "If you own the browser, you own the audience." That's the target.

I recommend reading the Stratechery interview a few times to parse and interpret the themes within it. And, if you're up for it, here's some additional follow-up podcasts and posts from me on the topic: