Native vs mobile apps

With over 60million smartphone users across five major European markets, it’s becoming accepted that mobile is built in to every organisation’s online marketing strategy. However, with the ever-increasing range of handsets and no real sign of a winner yet, how should companies address the mobile market?

Many instinctively turn to a native phone app. However, recent research from Google and Taptu suggests that the native app may be somewhat failing to attract smartphone users. Furthermore, it shows that the future is more likely to be dominated by cross-browser mobile websites. Taptu’s study found that 81 per cent of smartphone users use their phones to browse the web but only 68 per cent use an app.

The problem with the native phone app is the lack of a cross-platform solution; therefore you need to break down the above 68 per cent further between Apple, Android, Windows, Nokia, Blackberry and Palm. That’s a lot of different apps to build, maintain and get approval for. You also have to think about your target audience: who uses which device? Then there are the tablets and other touch screen or non-mouse driven devices such as Playstation, Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS. How do you cater for all of these products without destroying your annual budget?

Step forward the mobile website, or web app. This is often far cheaper than a native app and allows you to spread your coverage across all handsets. Taptu estimates that there are over 326,000 mobile-optimised websites in the world compared to around 170,000 apps between The App Store and The Android Market. With the introduction of HTML5, functionality and web capabilities are set to open the door to greater possibilities for websites in the future as well.

The upside

  • Instant access: no need to download and install •Latest information: no need to update •One voice: provides a ‘one site’ fit for all mobile phones, browsers and more
  • Design freedom: not limited to the traditional look and feel of an app •Feedback and tracking: standard web analytics provide more efficient tracking than app stats •SEO improvements: search engines can still spider the site and content, helping promote and optimise just one site
  • Icons: you can create a site icon that looks just like an iPhone or Android app icon •Approval bottleneck and app saturation: no need to go through the rigmarole of waiting for approval or compete in The App Store or other app marketplaces

These benefits may explain why some of the big players have decided to go down this road. Just look at YouTube or GoogleMail: the YouTube mobile site provides a far better experience and is more feature-rich than any of the apps across the handset selection. It’s a similar situation with Gmail; the web app can be accessed across more phones than the native app option.

The downside

Sadly it’s not all plain sailing with mobile sites. The app still provides users with the more familiar interface. Developers are able to utilise more of the phone’s features such as ‘shake’ and address book. More local data can be stored on the phone to allow a better offline experience. It’s easier to charge for content. And of course, once the user downloads it, it’s theirs.

Do mobile users really expect or want to receive the same content as desktop users? Smaller screens, lack of a mouse or real keyboard and, most importantly, the user’s time (and their connectivity) all need to be taken in to account. Don’t be swayed by the latest buzz – think about your audience’s needs.

I believe organisations are best served by investing in a cross-browser, cross-device solution. By using their websites to feed and match the device viewing it, they should be able to satisfy as broad a spectrum of their audience as possible

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