Should We Build a Mobile App, or a Mobile Website?

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by Rick Burgess

As we all know the web is constantly changing, new platforms seem to launch every day, and new development techniques are being touted as the future of live as we know it most weeks.

One piece of advice that has remained consistent over the last few years is that brands need to evaluate how customers use their services when on the move.

A common question we are asked when speaking about mobile strategy is:

Should we build a mobile app or a mobile version of our site/product?

Well, first we need to define exactly what we are talking about when speaking about a mobile app and mobile web.

When we speak about mobile apps are talking specifically about “native” apps which are developed for particular smartphones and appear in their respective app stores.

Mobile web means developing a site or product online which is designed to emulate the feel of a native app, but is accessed by a web browser on the smartphone.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages:

Mobile App Advantages

  • Available in the app stores –  much easier for new users to find
  • Greater access to the phone’s hardware – faster graphics, seamless file system usage
  • Push Notifications – only apps installed on a phone can send true push notification, although SMS messages can be used as a less friendly but more accessible alternative.
  • True fullscreen experience –  mobile web sites are restricted by the phone’s web browser has which means you lose valuable screen space.

Mobile Web Features

  • Cross platform – when properly developed mobile web sites work across most modern phones and even feature phones in some cases (see twitter)
  • Flexible Versioning –  without an app store there is no barrier to releasing new versions of your site whenever you want, which makes it easier to A/B test a new feature.
  • Lower Development costs

There is a hybrid approach that can be used which is something like Appcelerator’s Titanium framework which allows developers to build using HTML/CSS/Javascript and then wrap it up into a native app. The primary advantage of system like this is you develop once like Mobile Web and then deploy with most of the advantages of a native app.

Using the Lean Start-up’s concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) one approach I have been recommending is to look at developing a mobile web site first, work with your users to decide if a full blown mobile app would be useful and if so migrate your existing code over to a framework like Titanium. If it turns out the a mobile app isn’t required you still have a beautiful, future-proof website that you can continually evaluate to guide your next mobile steps.

App icons on smartphone image via Bigstock

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