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November 25, 2013

As mobile gadgets become bigger, some companies abandon websites altogether

WASHINGTON — The founders of online matchmaker Hinge were struggling to recruit potential daters when they decided in February to abandon their website to focus instead on mobile apps.

The company's core market of young singles is increasingly tethered to smartphones and other portable devices, the founders surmised, and use the gadgets for activities that can be done quickly while on the go.

"More and more people are using mobile as opposed to desktop [computers] for things like dating," chief executive Justin McLeod said. "That's where the world's going."

An increasing number of companies are developing mobile-first or mobile-only strategies that prioritize customers' experience on smartphones and tablets over desktop computers, which have long been the way most people access the Internet.

The amount of time spent accessing the Internet from desktop computers compared with smartphones has narrowed considerably in just the past year, according to ComScore, a Reston, Va.-based firm that tracks Web use.

In October 2012, Americans spent 511.9 million minutes accessing the Web from desktop computers, compared with 278.6 million minutes on smartphones, ComScore reported. The data do not include tablets.

This year, the gap was significantly smaller. In October 2013, Americans spent 445.5 million minutes accessing the Internet from desktop computers, compared with 410.8 million minutes on smartphones.

Internet usage "has moved over toward smartphones and tablets at the expense of desktop. Going forward, we think people will connect to the Internet on a wide variety of devices," said Hadley Harris, the founding general partner of Eniac Ventures.

Founded in 2009, Eniac invests exclusively in companies that are in the early stages of developing mobile products. Its portfolio includes more than 30 companies, including Washington, D.C.-based Hinge.

"When we started out, we got a bunch of advice from experienced [venture capitalists] that we worked with that our strategy was too niche and should be broader," Harris said. "But these days it's rare to see a company that isn't mobile first."

But different hardware is just a small piece of the shift underway. People generally use their smartphones in different locations, for different lengths of time and to complete different tasks than they would use a desktop computer.

Unlike other dating sites, for example, Hinge doesn't ask customers to sift through hundreds of profiles — a task more easily done on a computer. Instead, the app taps into social networks to recommend a handful of potential mates each day.

"It takes a couple minutes. It's a very quick interaction that you can do from anywhere, so it makes sense to do on the phone," Harris said.

But with a limited amount of screen space on mobile devices, particularly smartphones, and a shorter consumer attention span, companies that take a mobile-first or mobile-only approach are forced to winnow the features they offer.

That's the challenge D.C. entrepreneur Neil Kataria encountered when he created PriceSpotting, an app that allows people to compare the prices of merchandise such as laundry detergent or bottled water at nearby stores.

"It forced us to focus on the most important features for a consumer. When you do that, you really sift through the fluff and you simplify the experience for the consumer," Kataria said.

PriceSpotting doesn't have a complementary website, Kataria said, in part because consumers are increasingly starting to research potential purchases on their smartphones before they ever step foot in a store or sit down at a desk.

"Consumers and businesses are changing their strategies before our eyes," Kataria said. "The folks who can keep up and move the fastest and be agile are the ones who are going to really stand out a year from now."

But for all the buzz around mobile, desktop computers aren't disappearing overnight. Millions of workers still sit in front of one for eight hours a day and then go home to one.

Raj Aggarwal, founder and chief exeucutive of Localytics, an analytics and marketing firm for mobile apps, said that some companies create both Web sites and mobile apps, just not necessarily in that order.

"If you have the benefit of starting from scratch and you don't have a legacy business to support, develop on mobile, and once you're ready there, then expand to the Web," Aggarwal said.

The Internet is becoming more app-like, he said, even when tapped through a computer. As a result, the technological tools and strategies used to create mobile apps are more applicable than ever to ordinary websites.

"Both are big channels, important channels," Aggarwal said.

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