It seems like every year is the “year of mobile,” but this time around I believe that's true. Marketers have finally seen enough other brands achieve success, so they are jumping on the bandwagon with wild abandon. But before you join them, one of the basic decisions you have to grapple with is which platform or platforms you should use. This is slightly technical, so bear with me, but the question is: Do you use iOS for the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone 7, or all of the above? And what about mobile experiences designed to work in a smartphone’s browser, known as the “mobile Web”?
So before picking up the phone and shouting, “Build a mobile app!” to your minions, take a step back and look at some of the basic considerations that have to be made. First, let’s understand the different types of apps:
- Native apps: These are built on a mobile operating-system platform and are typically downloaded from that platform’s app store. Since they are built on the device’s specific operating system, the app must be specially built for iOS, Windows 7, BlackBerry, or Android.
- Mobile Web apps: Mobile Web apps are not device-specific and are accessible from mobile Web browsers, but they require Internet access.
- Hybrid: Hybrid apps display Web-based content within a native app and are often a viable solution to your customers’ needs, but they can be more complex and require more maintenance.
Now it’s time to ask the question, “How and why will my customers use my mobile app to make a purchase decision, use my product, and make their lives easier?” Remember, you’re building the app for your customers; if they don’t like it, they won’t use it. Making the right decision on your basic approach will set up your app for success or failure. Here are some factors to consider when deciding among the three app approaches.
>> When to consider a native app:
- Device features: If your app requires use of the phone’s GPS, camera, address book, or notes often, then consider a native app for smoother operation and easier use.
- Quick access: Native apps tend to launch quicker than Web-based apps and are recommended when customers will be using them frequently.
- Performance needs: If your app relies heavily on performance because it includes a game or entertainment content, then consider building a native app so you are not restricted to the unpredictable performance of the mobile Web. Also, if your app will be accessed in an area without Internet coverage (subway, the great outdoors, etc.), this approach is usually smarter.
- Market leadership: Launching a native app, especially in an uncontested area, is one way to get competitive advantage quickly. For example, USA Today and Bank of America often release native apps early to the market to establish themselves as the leaders of news and banking apps, respectively.
- Customer-driven content: If the content of your app relies on consumers uploading a lot of photos or contributing to the content in some way, then consider a native app approach.
>> When to consider a mobile Web app:
- Cost and maintenance: Mobile Web apps tend to cost less and require less maintenance because they are built once, not for each individual device platform. Since your customers’ needs will change as time passes, it is more expensive to change native apps across all platforms than it is to update mobile Web apps.
- Web content: If your experience is driven by content that is dynamically updated by you or other consumers, and you are focused on driving traffic to your content through Web search, then mobile Web is preferable.
- User interface control: If you want consistent branding, a mobile Web app could be more effective. Since each of the major platforms has user-experience and visual-design guidelines, quite a few differences across the platforms will impact the look, features, and supported resolutions, all of which will affect the branding consistency of native apps.
- Payments and tracking: Mobile Web apps give more control and options to accept payments and track results. Native apps can have more restrictions in these areas and even cost you money through revenue sharing with app stores.
If you find that your needs cross the benefits of both the mobile Web and native applications, then consider a hybrid approach. Tools like Appcelerator Titanium and PhoneGap are development platforms supporting native application development using Web technologies (HTML, CSS, JS, Ruby, Python, PHP). With these technologies, you can also access device capabilities like GPS, compass, etc. You can potentially get the best of both worlds by taking this hybrid approach. It’s an emerging solution requiring more innovation, but it could allow you to better address your specific needs.
>> Some other considerations include:
- Some say that with the continued development of HTML5, many of the current advantages of native applications will become less relevant; however, native apps will likely still have device-specific advantages and will be the necessary route for many applications.
- If you are focused on mobile commerce and want to target iPhone users, then you should strongly consider the iOS native platform vs. the Web because there is a 30% higher conversion rate with iPhone app users than mobile Web shoppers.
If this all sounds a bit complicated, bear in mind that it’s not half as complex as coming up with an app that your prospects and customers are really going to want to use. But that’s another story. In the meantime, the scorecard at the end of this recent mobile whitepaper can help you pull together all of these considerations for a fast decision on direction.