Working with many companies over the years and the explosion of mobile as an incredible way to reach consumers I generally hear the same thing “we know we need to be in the mobile space but how do we do it?” For the most part the answer has been to build an app. Whether it is a grandma, teenager or a stay at home mom chances are the word “app” has entered their vocabulary on some level. Thank you Apple and yes I do “have an app for that.”
While there are so many factors relating to the mobile space I thought I would tackle at least one of them. Should a company build an app or just go with a mobile web? My answer is yes but probably not for the reasons you think.
First a business should have a mobile web site. While the percentage of traffic hitting the site via mobile is relatively small now all of the clients I have spoken to have seen the traffic increase dramatically year over year and in some cases month over month. This means that if you do not have a website optimized for mobile then your customers are not getting a great experience, thus hurting your company. The other thing to understand is why are they hitting your site via mobile? Mobile traffic does not generally follow the same pattern as PC browsing. People are on the move, have limited time and limited screen size so they are going for very different things. For instance, many of my retail clients see competitive pricing searches verses deep product information lookups. This is because your potential customer is at another retail location and wants to see if it is cheaper at your location. Bad mobile web = lost revenue.
That being said it might sound like I am advocating against mobile apps which, I am not. Apps are a very powerful mobile engagement mechanic and having your app located on the most personal thing a person owns is a huge advantage. Customers who have an app for a particular retailer are usually two to three times more profitable for that retailer than their other customers who do not. Why? Partly because they are engaged on a personal level with that business.
All that being said I believe the largest issue with whether to go app verse mobile web is more based on cost and the functionality which is needed for the app. The major issue with app development is the money you will need to pour into a minimum of 2 operating systems (iOS and Android) for reach and need to address users of Blackberry, WP7 and feature phone which do make up a smaller portion but still significant reach among consumers. Then add the additional development costs you will spend to need to optimize the app for tablets (iPad, Android, Playbook) and it gets to be a lot. A lot of time and a lot of money to be more specific.
If the content and functionality for the app is relatively simple and which does not need to utilize many aspects of the “native” functions of the phone OS, I would suggest build using HTML5 (mobile web). For the most part you are building it once for all platforms and saving a whole lot of money doing it. One build, which can be used for your mobile website as well, and can be accessed with a much better user experience across almost all mobile devices.
Now here is the kicker. In the consumer space everything is about the “app” and getting that precious little icon on someone’s phone is a very powerful thing. If you go straight mobile web, in the minds of most consumers, you do not have an “app” thus you seem to be behind the times and if your competition does you run a strong risk of losing that customer long term.
To alleviate this issue and the consumer’s huge desire for apps, I would suggest creating some simple “native wrappers” for all of the major mobile OS’s. Wrappers are very inexpensive create and basically are a way you can “trick” the consumer into thinking they have an app. This could be as easy as an “app” that launches the browser, hides the address box etc and calls the HTML5 you have already created. The customer is able to download the app from an app store, place the icon on their mobile real estate and use it to their hearts content. From a business perspective you get the best of all worlds, significantly lower development costs, one central content management system and the halo effect of having an app in the market.
I would like to mention this does not work in all cases. If your app needs more complex functionality and using HTML5 affects the user experience then there might not be any choice but to go with a native application.
No matter how you slice it mobile is hear and companies need to move quickly to grab their spot. All of this feels so much like the internet boom we saw in the late nineties as companies tried to figure out how to deal with this new thing called the internet. Those who moved early and carefully prospered those who did not lost out. I would give examples but that was forever ago in tech time, I mean 10 years? Maybe if I could find my Palm Pilot I could tell you, I think had it written down in there.