Expert POV: The Evolution of Mobile Commerce

Mobify’s Expert POV series is a collection of thoughts and opinions from retail and technology leaders across industries.

John Duncan is the business guy at 64 Labs, a Florida-based digital agency. He is Stanford and London Business School trained, and recently ran strategy and development for one of the leading mobile optimization companies in the US.

We talked to John about the future of mobile commerce. Here’s what he said.

Mobify: When did you first hear about Progressive Web Apps?

John Duncan: We were calling it Progressive Mobile back then, but it was in a conference room not unlike this one on a call with the team from Mobify. It was about 18 months ago, and it seemed like it might be a mad idea – a very distant thing to be betting what seemed like a large part of the company on and we were a little bit nervous about it. But 18 months later, it’s clearly a good idea.

M: What mobile solution did you think was best at that time?

JD: 64 Labs has been in mobile since the early days, but the problem has changed. The problem used to be, “I need a mobile site, but how can I get one quickly when my IT team is telling me it’s going to be a year and a half?” For this there were a number of solutions – Mobify being one of them, at that time. Then there was a bounce back where IT teams felt like mobile was actually important, and they should try and get control of it because many of the vendors out there were not particularly good. They didn’t deliver great service so they made companies want to take it back in-house and control it.

M: How do Progressive Web Apps fit into the app versus web debate?

JD: I had the same argument for a year with every customer that we talked to. The conversation always went the same way, which was “Hey, mobile is really important, I think we should build an app.” At which point we said, “Okay if you want to reward and help the most loyal existing customers, that could be a good idea. But unless you’ve got bottomless pits of cash, the application ecosystem is just a nice-to-have.” It’s not an essential. Retailers really should be focused on making their mobile web experiences better because it’s more discoverable, more accessible, and frankly, if you take Facebook out of the equation, nobody uses native apps.

I think what changed that conversation was going on for years as the web was getting more and more access to all the cool stuff that the device could do – like the camera, the gyroscope, and the accelerometer. The tipping point there was messaging. That started to get retailers really interested. If you can message using the web, the only thing you haven’t got is a sense by the customers that they are using an app. So we’re at the point that there isn’t anything that you can do on an app that the web couldn’t do. There are a few efficiencies in the app but they certainly aren’t worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it costs to build these things.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are a framework for approaching the delivery of content. It’s a series of things that frankly you should have been doing and could have been doing for the last couple of years but no one was. When you bring them all together it adds up to what the mobile experience really could be. The challenge with progressive web is that it’s not a thing, it’s a lot of things. Keeping up with what’s there, and what Progressive Web actually means, is tough to do on your own and it’s not straightforward.

M: What do you see as the future of Progressive Web Apps?

JD: I think where we’re going with PWAs is where we should have gone the whole time – which is to say that each output of content has specific requirements and that it doesn’t make sense to try and force all of those requirements into a single place.

Let’s accept that mobile is different, and let’s find a way to build the absolute best mobile site that we can. The tail end of adaptive was hinting at that kind of approach and then comes Google and really tips the balance of that conversation by saying it’s going to use mobile compatibility (and now mobile speed) as a ranking indicator. I think a lot of the better retailers have seen the writing on the wall and decided that they actually need their mobile site to be world-class to survive. That’s the future of commerce.

M: Tell me about your first experience building Progressive Web Apps.

JD: Our first experience was for a semi-transactional customer but one that for whom speed and Google matters. They weren’t at a level where a Mobify installation would be financially viable because it wasn’t a commerce site, per se. But we knew the space pretty well, so we committed to building a PWA with them.

The contrast between this one and the Mobify PWA is reflective of the nature of PWAs. What we found was you can do a certain amount of research and figure out what a PWA is and all of the elements that make it up, look at how the Lighthouse score is constructed and what it is that Google’s looking for from you. But it’s a moving target, there are many things that can go wrong, and the experience curve is steep. If you’ve got a complex transactional system you definitely don’t want to do it on your own.

The comparison my business partner came up with is a shed. If you buy one of those flat-pack sheds from Home Depot, everything comes nicely labeled, in order, all the screws are counted out and in the right place and they are exactly the right size, and you put it all together and you have a shed. There’s nothing technically to stop you from going to Home Depot and buying the wood and buying the screws and putting them in the back of your car and taking them home and building a shed. But along the way, you will make multiple small mistakes that in the end, when you stick the two sheds next to each other, will mean that that shed looks like someone built it at home, and the other shelf looks like it came straight off the shelf at Home Depot.

It’s that experience curve that’s the problem. The experience doing it the first time really did emphasize the scale of difficulty associated with trying to put together what isn’t a single technology but is multiple different elements and methodologies and best practices and ways of doing things. When you’re teaching yourself how to do them the first time, you will get wrong. Guaranteed. Using Mobify has a learning curve too, but the beauty of it is that you can have people like us who have built with its platform multiple times do it for you.

Our experiences building with Mobify have been great. I’d much rather have a very clever team of engineers at Mobify keeping up with the moving target – with us in their tailwind – than have to be leading that particular charge. I do not recommend anyone transactional, at a medium to large scale, go down the PWA road on their own. There are too many things that you don’t want to be learning for the first time on something that is absolutely the core of your business.

M: Any final thoughts on the mobile experience?

JD: Progressive Web only counts where speed counts. The speed of the experience and the apparent instantaneity of an experience matters – and speed always matters when you’re on a phone. You could argue that PWA is an offshoot of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). What Google learned and pushed with AMP became PWA when they realized, “Why isn’t it this quick everywhere? We can serve a site from our cache, it’s the right way to do it, why isn’t everybody doing it?”

PWA conquered the delivery of news content for consumers. It’s conquering commerce, but things are always slower in commerce because of the amounts of money at stake. I’m not sure I see the point of native apps going forward. And I think with Google owning one of the app ecosystems I think it’s likely that what an app is and how we use apps and Progressive Web Apps will blur.

Speed is going to matter more, and the delivery of content in interesting ways is going to matter more, and, therefore, Progressive Web Apps are going to matter more.

John Duncan, 64 Labs

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