Mobile applications are the rage these days. With the explosion of smartphones and tablet use, it’s no wonder every organization is looking to put apps into production. But there’s more than one way to tackle this. Let’s take a look at the options.
First, there’s confusion as to what defines an app. Native apps are written specifically for one mobile operating system to utilize the built-in (or native) functions on the phone. Other apps being developed are just icons placed on the smartphone desktop that launch mobile browser sessions or mobile optimized websites. To keep things simple, we’ll look at the issue today as native apps as opposed to mobile websites.
The Native App
The advantage of native apps is the control they give developers over the user experience. Each platform (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc.) has its own unique feel – there are standard libraries of buttons, sliders and other widgets that act in a particular way. Users are accustomed to that look and the app fits right in.
The biggest tradeoff of the native familiarity is the need to rewrite the app for each mobile platform. That duplicated development effort comes at a cost. Also, each time there’s an operating system update, there’s the risk that you’ll need to update your apps to keep pace.
The Mobile Website
Mobile websites have a more generic look and feel, but support cross-platform implementation. This significantly reduces the cost to produce and support the tool. Don’t underestimate these costs – not only do you have to create native apps for various platforms — iPhones, iPads, Android, Windows mobile and Blackberries – there are also operating system updates. There were seven Android updates alone in the past year!
Mobile websites can also be found through search engines. Search engines are the dominant way consumers find information on mobile. App directories aren’t included in the major search engines’ results today.
In addition to being harder to find, apps take a certain commitment from users. Installing an app requires a relationship or, at the very least, an intent to use it more than once. In other words, it’s a harder sale.
So when is an app the right answer?
In my opinion, the benefits of mobile websites outweigh those of the app, unless the app brings something to the table that’s really needed. I recommend using a mobile website unless you need one of the following:
- Access to the phone’s hardware features, such as the camera, GPS or motion sensors (e.g., barcode readers)
- Push notifications (e.g., deal of the day apps)
- Offline access (e.g., eBook readers)
- Presentation or interaction needs that require a complex user interface (e.g., action games)
- “Cool factor” of having an app
- Plans to charge for it
Of course, not everyone agrees with where I’m drawing the line. For example, while there are plenty of sites that add paywalls to access content, consumers have shown greater resistance to shelling out cash to view things on their computers than paying for that same content delivered in app form.
When you approach this problem, it’s important to think through the options critically. There are many different ways to serve your mobile user base. They just don’t all work equally well!
So, what do you think? Where would you draw the line?