Mobile Apps or Mobile Web? What’s Your Strategy?
Mobile is so much more than apps and websites. Making informed technology decisions are crucial to the success of your mobile strategy.
How many times do you check your mobile phone each day? 20? 50? 100? In the United States, the average person will check their phone more than 200 times each day.
Here at Centric, many of our clients are investing in mobile to differentiate how customers experience their products and services. Many of these organizations are rethinking their employee’s daily workflow around the mobile user experience. Increasingly, we find ourselves working with senior leaders to re-imagine how mobile enables broader digital initiatives and business transformation.
A big part of mobile strategy is understanding how your team will deliver relevant user experiences across the diverse landscape of mobile platforms.
We’ve been through many of these engagements and in this article we will share some of our latest thinking around the pros and cons of alternative development approaches for mobile platforms.
The majority of applications (apps) in the Apple iTunes Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Store are native, which means they are developed for a specific platform such as Apple iOS or Google Android.
Native apps have the following features:
- “Always on” functionality that does not require a continuous internet connection
- Faster response time, particularly on images and video
- Better user experience
- Access to on-device hardware such as camera, accelerometer, microphone and motion sensors
- Deployment to customers is managed via public app stores such as Apple iTunes
- Deployments to employees, business partners or other groups are managed through private enterprise app stores or mobile device management tools
The biggest downside of native apps is that they are designed and built exclusively for a single mobile operating system. In other words, you must develop individual native apps for Apple, Android, Microsoft, Blackberry or other mobile operating systems.
While native apps perform the same type of function on each platform, the user interface and navigation controls, as well as source code running on the handset, are different for each platform. Here’s a side-by-side comparison example of native applications for Android, Apple and Microsoft platforms:
This figure depicts Centric’s employee directory Contact app coded natively for Google Android, Apple iOS and Microsoft Windows Phone. It’s a great example of cross-platform development using a single code base across multiple operating systems. Not only is this app useful, but it gives Centric’s mobile development staff a vehicle for staying up-to-date on the latest OS releases on the leading mobile platforms.
Mobile websites or web apps typically deliver lower cost, simpler deployment and “instant update” features that are common with traditional websites. Mobile websites provide greater flexibility than native apps:
- Cross-platform compatibility with multiple mobile operating systems
- Good fit with Bring-Your-Own-Device usage policies
- Ease of deployment and instant update
- Cheaper development
- Works best with stable internet connections
Mobile websites typically provide greater compatibility across different handsets such as phones and tablets, which is one reason they are frequently preferred by IT organizations.
Mobile websites are increasingly embracing responsive design techniques, which means the web browser interface adapts to the specific screen size and form factor of the most common handsets and tablets. Here’s an example of a responsive website viewed from desktop monitor, tablet and phone:
Yet responsive design is not appropriate for all web apps. If your website is used for viewing and consuming digital content, responsive web design is a great option. However, if your website must support complex transactions or work flow activities, responsive design will take far longer and cost more.
One of the fastest growing mobile technologies in 2013 has been cross-platform or “hybrid” apps. These hybrid apps combine many of the benefits of native mobile apps with the cross-platform flexibility of web apps. Additionally, many of these hybrid development tools are available as open source products that utilize traditional programming languages such as HTML or Microsoft .Net, which are familiar to enterprise IT software developers. Common features of hybrid apps include:
- One code base and cross-platform compatibility with some code refactoring
- Access to most on-device hardware features such as camera, microphone and audio/video sensors
- Shorter learning curve can lead to reduced development time
- Slower response time
Software vendors that distribute hybrid development products promise the capability to develop mobile apps once and deploy to multiple mobile platforms with little or no modifications.
From Centric’s point of view, the reality is a bit different than these vendors would have you believe. Typically, only the simplest hybrid apps can be deployed to multiple platforms without code refactoring. More complex usage scenarios, which are common in business work flows, often require an experienced mobile developer. This is due to more advanced features such as offline data synchronization, as well as certain security authentication methods and user interface controls that require mobile developers to code native plugins between the hybrid software wrapper and the underlying mobile operating system.
Additionally, testing and debugging tools for hybrid apps tend to be less robust versus native apps and web apps. This is due to hybrid software vendors focusing more on cross-platform development and less on cross-platform QA testing. Many hybrid software vendors are early-stage companies that do not have sufficient resources to build specialized mobile testing products.
Mobile is the future of computing, and yet mobile is so much more than apps and websites. Making informed technology decisions are crucial to the success of your mobile strategy. But it’s even more important to understand the user experience and be keenly aware of what your users are trying to accomplish.
Consider the following recommendations as you navigate the mobile landscape:
- Identify whether your intended user’s goals are better supported by a mobile website or mobile application
- Define the best approach for engaging with your intended users
- Consider the importance of user experience on mobile platforms versus consistency with your organization’s other digital channels
- Solicit feedback from a cross-functional team, not just IT experts, as you build and maintain your business technology roadmap
- Rationalize the user experience and mobile features you need immediately, but also challenge your team to look ahead six months into the future
- Understand that “one size fits all” may not be appropriate for mobile. You may need several tools for delivering mobile solutions to customers, employees and business partners