Crypto has a mobile crisis. As of November 2022, among the top 50 iOS and Android apps, only two--Instagram and Reddit--have crypto features (source). Many of the most exciting crypto innovations across DeFi, gaming, and NFTs are nowhere to be found in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Mobile wallet apps are buggy and hard to use.
All this points to a sobering truth: Fourteen years after the Bitcoin paper, crypto still punches far below its weight on smartphones, the most important computer device of our times. The vision of mass crypto adoption, as a result, remains out of reach.
But why is the situation so dire? Why are the vast majority of crypto applications bound to desktop browsers?
Team Dreamerly has interviewed 50+ crypto developers, investors, and users to investigate. We found that there are five key challenges for crypto mobile: 1) DeFi historical dependence, 2) app store policies, 3) UX barrier, 4) lack of mobile-native use cases, and 5) limited resources. This post presents our findings.
1) DeFi path dependence makes crypto desktop-first
For every strength, there is a weakness. The vision of freedom of money directly translates to finance as crypto’s original use case. From Bitcoin as a store of value and the ICO craze to the DeFi summer and NFT boom, crypto has always attracted the traders, financiers, and fund managers. These users, in turn, need a desktop interface (potentially with multiple screens!) to watch transactions, run technical analysis, follow the news, and chat on Discord or Telegram. The mobile UI, while convenient on the move, just cannot cut it for the finance pros.
Consequently, DeFi developers build desktop apps for these users, because 1) they have high trading volume and disproportionately drive protocol fees, and 2) they are early in most, if not all, DeFi protocols. There is nothing wrong with this: a team always has to focus on its core users first. And to be clear, desktop browsers work fine for most DeFi users too. Making transactions that directly affect your wallet balances typically requires research, planning, and deliberation--activities best done in front of a computer.
The trade-off, however, is a path dependence that hinders mobile development: On one hand, developers told us that they could not get mobile engineering’s best practices from DeFi. On the other hand, users form expectations that crypto projects must have first-class support for the desktop browsers. The result? Desktop becomes the de facto interface for crypto developers and users across all crypto verticals, for better or for worse.
2) App store policies are antagonistic to crypto
Everyone we talked to was unanimous on this point: The two gatekeepers of mobile applications, Apple and Google, have been very unfriendly towards crypto. This hostility goes back to the very beginning: When Bitcoin first gained traction in 2013, Apple removed the Coinbase iOS app, together with all Bitcoin wallets, from its App Store (see link and link). To this day, Apple’s policies limit cryptocurrency trading to only apps made by licensed exchanges and financial institutions, and mandate a 30% revenue cut on NFT transactions. Android, while slightly less stringent, still bans crypto mining.
Even worse, these formal rules are only the tip of the iceberg, because both Apple and Google reserve broad discretion to reject apps without clear explanations. For example, Apple has been rumored to discourage apps with cryptocurrency features during the review process, or to impose extra requirements such as multi-factor authentication (2FA) for cryptocurrency wallets.
The aggregate effect of these formal and informal rules is that crypto mobile apps are at a huge disadvantage compared to their web counterparts. Web3 developers complained to us about how the closed nature of iOS and Android is the antithesis of crypto’s ethos, while web2 developers fear adding new crypto features may lead to removal from the app stores.
Despite this chilly reception from Apple and Google, the developers we talked to all understood the clear benefits of building for mobile: from the ubiquity and convenience of smartphones to the relatively high trust that consumers place on mobile apps. In fact, most have plans to either publish crypto apps on the app stores or build mobile webapps. In addition, the platforms seem to signal a friendlier approach, with Apple having recently allowed NFT transactions via in-app purchase.
When building for mobile, however, developers run into myriad UX problems.
3) Mobile UX for crypto is clunky
It is well known that the crypto UX is problematic, to say the least. To interact with the blockchain, a consumer has to navigate through arcane technical jargons, store seed phrases, defend against hacks, and many other hurdles. On top of these, the mobile UX for crypto has its unique set of problems:
- Wallet integration with other crypto apps: End users told us that it is very annoying to 1) to download a wallet app like Metamask, and 2) jump back and forth between a crypto app and the wallet app to review and sign transactions. While protocols like WalletConnect have significantly improved wallet integration, bugs still surface every now and then. A mobile webapp is no better, because the built-in Safari browser on iOS does not work with wallets, which means users have to download third-party browsers such as Brave.
- Limited functionalities in mobile wallets: We discovered that mobile crypto wallets tend to be far behind in features, compared to their desktop version. One comment we heard consistently is that “all the great features happen on desktop first, and then, if we’re lucky, they come to mobile”. Several features, such as copying and pasting addresses, are either impossible to port to mobile or raise security concerns. It is therefore no surprise that wallets like Metamask received widespread criticism for its buggy and basic mobile apps (link).
- Other miscellaneous UX problems, such as the reliance on QR codes: Crypto wallets, by design, need to show a long and complicated public address to receive payments. This creates a major friction point on mobile, where users need to either 1) type in a long string of characters, or 2) use a QR code scanner to copy the address. Some wallets have attempted to mitigate these problems by offering “simple send” or “quick send” features, but these come at the cost of flexibility and security.
4) There are no compelling mobile-native apps for crypto yet
Think Uber, Whatsapp, and TikTok. Each of these apps leverages the phone medium to create unique, powerful experiences for users that simply cannot be replicated on laptops. The developers of these apps painstakingly built and tested features after features to unlock values that have now become such an integral part of the mobile experience: 3G/4G network for ride hailing, notifications for messaging, and vertical scrolling for short videos. More importantly, they copy, iterate, and innovate from each other to broaden the reach of mobile and make the smartphones an extremely compelling device for the end users.
Can crypto do the same? What should mobile-native crypto applications look like? Current crypto mobile apps are confined to three main verticals: wallet, exchange, and, to a smaller extent, gaming. None of those, however, is inherently mobile-native. With a few exceptions (e.g. Coinbase and Binance), the desktop versions of these apps are far more popular than their mobile counterparts. This implies that there is still a missing link between blockchain and the mobile form factor--a link that can truly create a generation of mobile-first or mobile-only crypto apps.
To be clear, this is not an indictment on crypto. Many developers, designers, and product managers we talked to are busy building innovative, powerful, interesting use cases for a crypto mobile future. Thanks to them, we can all be optimistic that one day, consumers will be able to enjoy the powers of the blockchain on their mobile phones.
5) Limited resources force developers to prioritize the browser
Interestingly, several teams cited engineering and budget resources as a reason for crypto’s weaknesses on mobile. This works in two ways:
- First, crypto as an industry is still nascent, so most teams are small and have to forego mobile apps to focus on desktop browsers.
- Second, the current bear market makes it a lot more difficult to recruit and retain iOS and Android talents.
We list this challenge last because crypto has always moved in cycles. Once the downturn subsides, investments and attention will likely return to the space. More crucially, we believe that constraint breeds creativity. Resilient crypto builders can and will turn the lack of resource into an advantage.
So how do we go from here?
The way forward: Make crypto mobile-native with Dreamerly’s toolkits
Despite these challenges, every founder, developer, and builder we talked to understood that we have to build on mobile, and the desktop-first approach of crypto is not sustainable. The numbers don't lie, per Statista:
- 61% of Internet users worldwide accessed the Internet via mobile phone in 2019
- Mobile phones accounted for 50.81% of global web pages served in Q2 2020
- Mobile phones have generated 60.66% of Internet traffic through the first half of 2022
So the impetus for action is clear; what remains are the challenges to solve: How can crypto builders create great UX, navigate app store policies, find compelling use cases, and overcome limited resources?
This is where Dreamerly comes in.
We offer mobile-native, compliance-focused, out-of-the-box toolkits for developers to integrate crypto and NFT features into their iOS and Android apps. Dreamerly starts with a set of SDKs and analytics tools that make in-app NFT transactions delightful for developers and end users alike. With Dreamerly, crypto builders can say good bye to app review headaches and can focus on what matters most: build powerful, seamless, awesome experiences for customers.
Dreamerly's toolkits enable diverse use cases across gaming, ecommerce, and social, while removing the constant worry about app rejection. Over the longer term, we will add authentication, wallet integration, smart contract monitoring, and other features to help builders serve their customers even better.
Our mission is to make crypto mobile-first and drive crypto adoption for the next billion of users through smartphones.
And we are just getting started.
Dreamerly is a suite of easy-to-use, compliance-focused, customizable SDKs and APIs powering NFT features in iOS and Android apps. Our mission is to help mobile developers create amazing web3 experiences for their customers.