Desktop is Lava

October 26, 2016

My good friend, colleague, D&D party member, and fellow dad, Lon Ingram and I got into a good discussion the other night about Native Apps vs. Mobile Web vs. Desktop Web. In part, it was sparked by Google’s decision to fork their search index into mobile and desktop. It’s a curious decision but I assume it’s to prioritize fast (cough AMP cough) mobile sites. Lon elegantly summed up our collective thoughts on this new search algorithm and other data points we’ve seen:

“Desktop is lava.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Google Search announcement might as well have been “We’re forking the index into Modern and Legacy.” Paired with a sandwhich-board-style soundbyte from Google Chrome’s Alex Russel:

You probably need to watch that talk. It explains some of the limitations of not just mobile websites, but mobile hardware and computing in general.

There are a lot of data and signals that spell this out. The next billion users of the Web will use sub-$200 phones. Doubleclick found your site needs to load in 3s on 3G. Interactive in less than a second. That changes everything; how we design, build, and continuously iterate on our products (hint: less javascript). Here are some of data points Lon and I shared to build a picture of the state of the Mobile Web:

  • 🔑 Social networks, search engines, publications, and retailers have already hit the tipping point and are seeing majority mobile traffic. This is probably where your traffic comes from.
  • 🔑 The native app market is tightening. Most people don’t download apps.
  • 👍 Mobile Web traffic is 3x native app traffic.
  • 👍 Mobile Web audiences are growing 2x as fast as app audiences.
  • 👎 Mobile Web engagement (time on site) is 20x less than apps.
  • 👎 Mobile Web engagement is steadily decreasing.
  • 🔑 The Chrome Developers team has been single-mindedly focused on mobile performance lately. This is a huge foreshadowing signal.

Most of these data points are found in the comScore 2016 U.S. Mobile App Report. The only data point I can find in defense of the Desktop Web is from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2016 report:

  • 👍 Desktop Web browsing hasn’t been cannibalized by mobile…
  • 👎 But it has stagnated. comScore reports a 16pt drop in Desktop usage over the last 3 years.

To think that the number of Desktop Web users has stalled and will never grow from this point forward is eye-opening. If the number of mobile users is doubling each year, then it’s clear that the classical view of website as a desktop layout needs to be deprecated.

A side note: Lon and I didn’t agree on all the details. To oversimplify some nuanced opinions, Lon sides with Google Search’s dichotomy. Mobile and Desktop are inherently different. He thinks mobile apps and mobile web should have parity. I feel like the mobile web and desktop web should maintain parity. The web should have a consistent user experience and apps can tailor to whatever platform-specific design language necessary. To me, Desktop Web is a bonus provided by a mobile-first responsive design. But alas, not all responsive designs are truly mobile-first and ship the bloat and heavy pages down to tiny phones.

While Lon and I disagreed on these details, it was an in-house disagreement like Presbyterians and Lutherans disagreeing about which flavor of Calvinism is the best. I think there needs to be room for discussion. The unifying belief that Lon and I share is that Desktop is lava and should be deprioritized… like soon.