Apps, mobile web or both for travel companies?

There is no doubt that mobile apps in general have been a huge success over the past few years: last month the 10 billionth app was downloaded from the iTunes App Store.

The question I am now asking is whether too many travel industry participants are looking more to the past than the future by continuing to place a disproportionate level of resources in building apps whilst at the same time under-investing in making their regular websites mobile enabled?

When the Tnooz Predictions 2011 were collated, one of mine was that mobile apps in travel have hit their high water mark, meaning that as a proportion of overall travel related mobile internet traffic the share attributable to apps would decline.

Recently I’ve seen data out of both the UK and US showing massive growth during the past year in mobile search on Google and this leads to the question – where does mobile search lead to if not to the mobile web?

In some instances the subsequent click may be on a paid advertisement for a travel app, but trying to convert these leads into sales via this path is putting up a lot of unnecessary roadblocks.

Apps are great for loyal customers, as the data from Priceline shows, but with the massive growth in mobile search, under-investing in the browser based mobile web is a strategy surely doomed to fail.

The success of InterContinental Hotels Group with its mobile website is a good illustration of the importance of balancing priorities between apps and the browser.

ComScore recently released The 2010 Mobile Year in Review, containing some data points relevant to this discussion. Taken from the report, it looks as if the high water mark for apps may have come even sooner than I had predicted.

“Even though applications received much more attention by the media throughout 2010, our analysis in the US and the EU5 region [UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy] showed that by a small margin, application usage is still second to browser usage when it comes to mobile web.”

The comScore report also highlights one possible reason why companies might be wary of committing to the mobile web, and that is related to cost control. Replicating the full functionality of one existing website to be optimized across so many platforms can be a daunting prospect.

“…there is far more technology fragmentation in mobile than in the PC world. There are more that 60 different browser versions being deployed across mobile handsets from over a dozen vendors, making mobile technology increasingly complicated.”

Airlines and other travel suppliers are really ramping up the talk around increased personalization in 2011, with mobile being seen as a key plank in this strategy of getting closer to the customer at every point in the travel purchase lifecycle.

The Expedia purchase of Mobiata demonstrated a serious commitment towards mobile-enabling their business and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently indicated that this was progressing well.

But all players moving down this path, the convergence of personalization with content management must surely be expedited by the complexity of the mobile web and the challenge of controlling costs across a greater number of sites. With all the new tablets now coming our way, something must surely give.

Whether travel industry participants build over and over again for each different screen size and operating system, or whether content management systems or some other technology solution can manage to remove the need to hard code the user interface layer multiple times in an increasingly complex world of points of presence proliferation…. this will be a major factor in determining whether true personalization across multiple devices becomes a reality.

And, more importantly, whether it can happen without blowing the budget of everyone that attempts it?

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Martin Collings

About the Writer :: Martin Collings

Martin Collings is a contributor to tnooz and is currently employed as Vice President, Innovation Management & Commercialization at MasterCard Labs, based in Sydney. In this position, he manages various mobile payments initiatives with his role covering the region of Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

Prior to MasterCard, Martin Collings spent six years with Amadeus IT Group, based in both Madrid and Chicago in a variety of airline roles, most recently as head of airline e-commerce sales for the Americas.

During his time at Amadeus he also wrote the Shearwater Blog covering various topics of interest for airline selling via direct channels. The views of Martin Collings are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of MasterCard.



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  1. Alexandra Murashova

    Mobile apps are hot today. But hiring a programmer is too expensive. I used to make apps. It’s really easy, the web service allows to make mobile apps in minutes, and without programming skills at all. If you are short of time, they can make an app for you very quickly.

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  3. The Interweb

    The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

  4. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Some think it will be an App World and someone has even gone as far as speculating the Web is dead.

    One of the App attraction is that it has not been Googledefiled yet. So the gaming of the App is not there … yet. But search in the App store is not the most intuitive place to find anything. This is going to be a big issue going forward. None of the App stores today enable good search in my view.


  5. Tommaso

    The point is that apps – if properly developed – can generate higher brand awareness and profits in a shorter period of time respect mobile websites. Mobile websites have the same banner-based revenue model of regular websites but on average a significant lower traffic.

    • Martin Collings

      Steve, the “updates” comment is definitely a plus of going via a browser. Backwards compatability becomes much less of an issue.

      Tommasso, most travel industry players reading Tnooz would, I suspect, have websites that generate transactional revenue rather than “same banner-based revenue model of regular websites”

      But my key thesis is not anti-app, it is just that browser based mobile web has been way under-invested in relative to apps which is surprising when you see the numbers on growth in mobile search during the past year.

  6. steve sherlock

    i think the attractiveness of apps is mainly around being found in an app store search.

    downside of apps are the updates that need be downloaded each time. ive got 31 app updates waiting to be downloaded – oh the data charges.

    whereas mobile sites dont required updates. so thats a plus.

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  8. Norm Rose

    At this point all travel companies can no longer ignore the Mobile Web and thus must work to optimize their Website for all mobile browsers. The experience of trying to navigate a normal non-optimized Website even on the most advanced smartphones can be very frustrating. There are a many 3rd party developers who can optimize a company’s Website for the Mobile Web across all devices.
    The role of native apps is a bit different. Until HTML5 matures, native apps still have a superior ability to access core smartphone functions such as the accelerometer, compass and address book. I agree that personalization along with location and context (situation relevance) are the main drivers of any successful native app. It is my view that the native app should be targeted for specific location-based functions based on the specific target market you are trying to reach, rather than a re-creation of the standard Website functionality in a native app form. The Priceline Negotiator App is a great example of this, targeting last minute hotel and car purchases.
    Tablets on the other hand are a completely different platform that requires a unique experience. Yesterday’s eMarketer article ( clearly showed that the expectations and behavior of the tablet user is quite different from the smartphone experience. That means that travel companies also need to develop tablet specific native apps. With over 100 tablets hitting the market and the correlation between frequent travelers as early adopters of new technology, the tablet revolution cannot be ignored.

    • Martin Collings

      Norm, tablets will be an interesting category to watch. We are still in the very early days, maybe not too dissimilar to when the iPhone was first released. In that case it was all about apps originally. Whether the same trend will hold as tablets mature, or whether the usage is so different to mobile phones that generic search will be less important is something that only time will tell. I was interested to hear Jason Spero of Google last week saying that the volume of search queries from a large screen mobile is typically 50 times greater than that coming from a Blackberry. If that logic is extended to tablets, then I see no reason why the use of generic search engines by tablet users should not increase over time, thereby meaning travel websites will need to optimized for the tablet experience as well.

  9. mag

    truely from a business stand point of view, I can’t understand the appMania of these days. The fun part of me likes to play around on iDevice … but how much evolvement is there really from the good ol’ days using smartphone when it used to be called PDA? mobile web yet to come!

    • Martin Collings

      Agreed – apps still have an important role, and will for some time yet, but the appMania you talk of may lead to app fatigue from users in future.


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