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Article|McKinsey Quarterly

How new Internet standards will finally deliver a mobile revolution

As the Web experience evolves, smartphones may soon live up to their name, and every business’s mobile strategy will grow in importance.

April 2011 | byBengi Korkmaz, Richard Lee, and Ickjin Park

An arcane-sounding change with potentially significant implications for consumers and businesses is under way on the Web: the shift to a new generation of HTML,1 the programming standard that underpins the Internet. Senior executives, regardless of industry, should take note; like the exponential growth of device-specific applications, this evolution of HTML will further boost the power of mobile devices, accelerating changes in the way people consume content and the potential use of smartphones and tablets as both a marketing platform and a productivity tool.

The next generation of the Internet standard essentially will allow programs to run through a Web browser rather than a specific operating system. That means consumers will be able to access the same programs and cloud-based content from any device—personal computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet—because the browser is the common platform. This ability to work seamlessly anytime, anywhere, on any device could change consumer behavior and shift the balance of power in the mobile-telecommunications, media, and technology industries. It will create opportunities and present challenges. This article seeks to provide a primer on these changes for senior executives, who may feel the effects of the move toward “Web-centricity” much sooner than they think.

Web-centricity

In some ways, the evolution of mobile technology resembles the battle among PC makers in the 1980s. While we today take it for granted that Microsoft’s Windows operating system underpins hardware from countless manufacturers, it wasn’t always that way. Remember the operating systems that powered the Commodore 64, the biggest-selling PC of all time, or the Apple II? Before the emergence of Microsoft’s DOS and then Windows, PC users faced a tough decision about which technology to adopt, because that determined the games and utilities they could use, as well as the general usefulness of their computers. The same occurs today with mobile devices. Users must weigh the hardware and software merits and commit themselves to a technology, whether it’s a device from manufacturers such as Apple or Research in Motion, the ever-increasing array of tablets and smartphones running Google’s Android operating system, or, soon, offerings from Nokia running on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system.

The next generation of HTML, known as HTML5, may narrow these differences between mobile devices. HTML5, the most significant evolution yet in Web standards, is designed to allow programs to run through a Web browser, complete with video and other multimedia content that today require plug-in software and other work-arounds. In theory, this will make the browser a universal computing platform: without leaving it, users could do everything from editing documents to accessing social networks, watching movies, playing games, or listening to music. Not only would any device with a Web browser have these capabilities, but consumers would also have access to all content stored remotely “in the cloud,” independent of locations and devices.

That’s the first reason Web-centricity holds particular promise for mobile devices. The second is that it helps overcome the relatively weak processing power of smartphones and tablets compared with PCs and laptops. It’s partly this lack of horsepower that has fuelled the explosive growth in applications (or “apps”) to optimize the performance of specific devices: the average smartphone user now spends more than 11 hours a month using apps, more time than either Web browsing or talking, according to a March 2011 study by research firm Zokem. HTML5 has the potential to improve the mobile experience—its specifications enable browsers to locally store 1,000 times more data than they currently do, so users can work when offline—writing e-mails, for example—and their devices will automatically update when a network becomes available. What’s more, programs and applications run faster because complex processing tasks are handled by network servers, although mobile-network capacity must go on growing to deal with heavier data demands.

Of course, not all programs are suited to running through browsers, nor is HTML5 the first would-be universal platform to emerge: Sun Microsystems (purchased by Oracle in 2010) promised that with its Java language, programmers could “write once, run anywhere.” Things haven’t worked out that way. And there’s never a guarantee that one kind of standard will prevail (see sidebar, “Winning the Web standards battle”). The rate at which developers are writing apps and consumers buying them is dizzying, and ingrained behavior can be hard to change. Web-centricity may raise security fears among users because programs are no longer installed on specific devices and because data are stored remotely. And there could be fragmentation issues with both the standard and the browsers—after all, existing ones, such as Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s Firefox, don’t all treat the current standard, HTML4, the same way.2

Despite these possible headwinds, the number of HTML5 Web sites is increasing by the day. Hardware manufacturers are lining up behind HTML5, and the development community is undertaking efforts to safeguard data in the cloud at a very fast pace. We therefore estimate that more than 50 percent of all mobile applications will switch to HTML5 within three to five years—and the rate of transition could be considerably higher and faster. No matter how quickly the shift occurs, it will affect both consumers and businesses significantly.

Consumer impact

Consider a simple task many consumers currently use mobile devices for: reading news headlines. Today, that requires accessing a specific Web site—often a sluggish exercise in frustration—or separately installing an application on every device used and, for those that charge a fee, paying each time. With Web-centricity, a single application can theoretically be accessed from any device through a browser—pay once and you’re done. And because all content is stored in the cloud, billing information and preferences can be seamlessly shared and accessed, and all devices remain in sync. A consumer can start reading an article on a tablet and then switch to a laptop, picking up where she left off. In a more advanced example, she could start an instant-messaging or video-chat conversation on her desktop computer and continue it on her smartphone. The bottom line for consumers: Web-centricity represents a major step toward genuinely “smart” devices that offer the same simple, relevant, and personalized experience everywhere.

Industry impact

These changes to consumer behavior may affect the economics of industries ranging from telecommunications and media to technology and even advertising. As Web stores selling applications that can be used across devices proliferate, for example, cutthroat competition may leave ad agencies reminiscing wistfully about the days when they could claim up to 40 percent of every dollar of mobile-advertising revenue. Consider, briefly, the implications for the following players in a world where content is everywhere and the relative importance of operating systems and Web browsers for creating and distributing programs and applications is shifting.

Software developers. Application developers currently pay a fee of up to 30 percent to device makers, telecommunications operators, or operating-system developers whenever an application is sold to a consumer. In a Web-centric world, developers can avoid these intermediaries: not only can the same application be sold across all devices but anyone can set up a Web store and sell directly to users. Google, for instance, is already charging application developers a distribution fee of about 5 percent through its Chrome Web store.3 In addition, the emergence of an open platform will probably motivate bigger enterprise software companies to introduce—and quickly—mobile-based programs for managing customer relationships, marketing, and supply chains.

Telecom operators. Web-centricity may be a double-edged sword for telecom players. On the one hand, it will spur demand for mobile-Internet services, create opportunities for operators as consumers seek applications that work across multiple devices, and loosen the grip of native app stores. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that operators can make money with new apps, the likely surge in data traffic will require significant investments in network infrastructure, and operators may face increased competition from companies offering Web-based mobile-voice and -video services.

Content providers. Web-centricity should provide revenue and savings opportunities for content providers. On the revenue side, the ease with which consumers can access Web-centric content on the go should stimulate their interest in more relevant, timely material. Moreover, the seamlessness with which consumers can access HTML5 content across devices could create more opportunities for providers, such as television and movie studios, to offer consumers programming directly or to work through aggregators such as Apple’s iTunes. Finally, advertising could support additional mobile content. Fragmented mobile platforms today make it hard for online publishers to manage ad inventories across a broad range of users. Advanced features such as consumer targeting and measurement may migrate to the mobile-Web environment. Of course, this development will no doubt attract entrants and intensify competition, making the new environment as challenging as it is dynamic.

Savings, a secondary benefit, come from avoiding the cost of converting an application from one platform to another (today, typically around 50 percent of the original development cost). Newspapers and magazines, for example, should be able to create content once and deliver it seamlessly across multiple devices, lowering production costs and increasing reach.

Device makers. Web-centricity will probably make consumers more “device agnostic,” and that will in turn reduce the ability of players to control an ecosystem of developers and could accelerate the commoditization of mobile devices. The shift does, however, create opportunities. Manufacturers will be able to better and more easily integrate software and hardware experiences within and across devices. They can try to develop compelling cross-device applications and speed up the push to make synchronizing and storing data across devices easier. Finally, they have some control (along with operators) in choosing the default set of Web-centric services and applications embedded in devices.

What it means for senior executives

Consumer uses propel many innovations associated with Web-centricity. Yet it could ultimately provide a range of benefits for companies as information technology moves to Web-centric platforms and away from the current hard-wired infrastructure and applications. These are enterprise-level issues, and any CEO who isn’t confident that the organization is grappling with them should start pushing the senior team to understand their importance.

The CMO

The emergence of the “m-dot revolution”4 —the increasingly strong tendency of consumers to use mobile devices to access company and product information—will have its greatest impact on chief marketing officers. Many companies are already experimenting with innovative smartphone applications; Volkswagen, for instance, has released a popular racing game for the iPhone. Companies will be able to continue taking advantage of the enhanced power of mobile Web browsers to create compelling experiences directly for users. In addition, CMOs will need to push their teams to develop compelling mobile-advertising strategies that go well beyond merely inserting ads into applications, as many do today. HTML5 should create opportunities to use video advertising more often, for example, and the development of robust mobile capabilities may spur the evolution of marketing tactics such as the monitoring of shopping activity to deliver real-time, location-specific coupons.

The CIO

Web-centricity puts additional pressure on organizations to invest in corporate cloud infrastructure. Chief information officers should, for example, prepare for the day when consumers, employees, and suppliers all communicate and interact through the use of mobile devices that run Web applications. This phenomenon will not only extend the reach of the enterprise but also place a premium on analytics and possibly improve the competitiveness of companies that can exploit the new information and interactions a Web-centric environment provides.

CIOs will have to decide whether costs can be cut and productivity increased by introducing rich applications both horizontally, across industries (for example, enterprise customer-relationship-management systems such as Salesforce.com), and vertically, within industries (say, mobile electronic medical records in health care or smartphone-based claims processing in insurance). Web-centricity also promises smaller productivity improvements, such as allowing users to store content locally for later uploading. Employees will therefore be able to work without being connected to the Internet—for instance, when they’re on airplanes.

The CEO

From the perspective of the chief executive officer, Web-centricity should be part of a broader imperative to elevate the importance of mobile marketing in corporate strategy. CEOs will need a response when, as must inevitably happen, they are asked how their companies are dealing with the m-dot revolution, which introduces a mobile element into everything from commerce to advertising to public relations. What’s needed is not just the coordination of mobile initiatives from functional offices, however. CEOs must take a big-picture approach to the collective implications of Web-centricity, the way it redefines a company’s interactions with employees and customers, and the challenges and opportunities it presents.

Of course, Web-centricity will require spending money to make money. Organizations will have to make IT investments, particularly for cloud-based computing and mobile platforms. Employees, especially in sales and operations, will need training in the art and science of mobility if companies are to maximize cost savings and productivity improvements. Yet Web-centricity also promises to make the mobile-Internet experience more open, complex, and dynamic. It may change the way consumers and enterprises behave. Even if companies don’t understand the technical aspects of this transition, they must master the technology’s potential and possible ramifications.

About the authors

Bengi Korkmaz is an associate principal in McKinsey’s Istanbul office; Richard Lee is a principal in the Seoul office, where Ickjin Park is an associate principal.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Paul Choo, Michael Chui, Jinwook Kim, and Johnson Sikes to the development of this article.

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