Apps or browser? GetJar vs. Google on the future of mobile services

The most over-the-top statements and biggest disagreements at our MobileBeat 2009 conference last week circled the same question: Will the future bring a jillion smartphone applications, or a jillion smartphone web sites?

The BBC even reported about how executives from GetJar, the largest independent mobile app store, and Google completely disagreed at MobileBeat on whether developers should focus on platform-specific phone apps or run-anywhere browser apps.

“Apps will be as big, if not bigger than the Internet,” GetJar chief executive Ilja Laurs (left) said at one point. Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra (right), in a separate forum, delivered the event’s most-discussed line: “We’re not rich enough” to support multiple mobile platforms. Put it in the browser, Gundotra said.

In the coming year, this will be the biggest fight in the tech industry — even bigger than Blu-ray versus HD-DVD. Google’s browser-based approach brings the internet mindset to the phone: Products and services shouldn’t be tied to one company’s hardware platform or operating system, and it’s better to sacrifice a few features in order to have an application that will run on any phone.

Alternatively, GetJar pushes an app-centric future, in which apps built for specific platforms do things you can’t do in a browser. GetJar serves millions of Windows Mobile, Palm and BlackBerry apps to its customers and has spent years building up relationships to be the app provider for large carriers outside the U.S. like Virgin Mobile and Sony Ericsson.

Who’s going to win? Right now, platform-specific app stores are attracting developers to build for them. But in the long run, products and services built to fit open-browser standards have consistently won out over those that only run on certain devices. Ten years ago, tech industry watchdogs feared that Microsoft would create a Windows-only internet. Today, the idea seems silly.

GetJar, I’m willing to bet, is already planning for a future that runs in a browser. And when Gundotra says Google isn’t rich enough to support proprietary phone platforms, what he really means is Google doesn’t have to.

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