• Mobile Website or Mobile App: Which Do You Need? Apr 1, 2012

    Mobile Website or Mobile App: Which Do You Need?


    It is increasingly clear to most website owners that the web has gone mobile and if you want to be where your customers are, you've got to be there too. For many of the websites we manage, mobile page views as a percentage of total page views cracked the 10 percent mark in the second half of 2011 and are continuing to rise.

    Choosing how to respond to the mobile challenge is not often easy. And the differences between the choices available are not well understood. One option about which there is much confusion is developing a mobile app.

    Anyone who owns a smartphone is familiar with apps. They can turn your phone into a GPS device, predict the weather, allow you to make cheap phone calls, play games, track planes in flight or shop at your favorite online store. Some apps come preloaded on your phone but myriad others are available for download -- either cheaply or free -- from your phone's preferred app store.

    So when we talk to website owners about addressing the needs of mobile users, many just assume that the next step is to build them an app. Yet, in almost every case, designing and building a mobile app turns out not to be the best idea. To understand why, let's consider the plusses and minuses:

    There are 4 potential advantages to building a mobile app:

    1. Residency. An app is installed software. Unlike a website that a person "visits" once in a while, an installed app becomes part of "their stuff." So you can push content to their phone and you can be somewhat assured that when they need a product, service or source of information, they will choose yours because you have made it so convenient for them to do so.

    2. Network Independence. Depending on how it is constructed and what it is designed to do, your mobile app can provide some useful information or service even when your mobile device is not connected to the Internet. You may be able to play a game or browse information that was previously downloaded. An excellent example would be a naturalist's field guide. Birding or mushroom hunting may take you to places with little or no connectivity and a comprehensive field guide that weighs only a few ounces can be invaluable.

    3. Interaction with other built-in mobile functions. Mobile apps can access your smartphone's address book, or provide the option of snapping a photo or video and immediately uploading that content to a website as part of an integrated process. This can be enormously helpful if you are providing a tool for people to report information from their local environments. For example, snap a picture of a pothole and upload it to your city's public works department along with its geo-coordinates and your comments.

    4. Apps can be sold. Most mobile apps are distributed for free as a means of extending the reach of a brand, organization or service. But if you develop something that's especially useful or entertaining -- a reference work, a specialist's tool, or a game -- you can actually make some money, or at least recoup some of your costs.

    Also, If you are a publisher trying to find a medium for delivering your newspaper, magazine or journal that provides a focused personal connection to your readers, the potential for making lavish use of rich media and the opportunity to get paid, then a mobile app for tablets may be your salvation.

    But for many businesses, organizations and public agencies seeking other ways to connect with their customers, these 4 advantages may not be relevant, or the hurdles posed by developing a mobile app may outweigh the advantages:

    1. Smartphones are getting overcrowded with apps. Although the numbers vary, most recent surveys suggest that the typical iPhone or Android owner has somewhere around 60 apps loaded on their phone. Once that number reaches a threshold where individuals have difficulty remembering which apps they've got, we can only imagine that their app-etites for acquiring more have got to diminish. So before you consider developing an app, ask yourself: How compelling is it likely to be? Compelling enough that my customers will want to add one more app to their burgeoning collection?

    2. Getting discovered and downloaded is a challenge. Google and its competitors have become remarkably efficient at helping people sort through the billions of pages on the Internet to find what they are looking for. Nowadays, if you do a good job of developing and optimizing your website content, there's a reasonable chance that your target customers will discover your website using search. Not so for apps. As Sarah Perez writes on TechCrunch there are over 500,000 apps for iPhone and over 300,000 for Android, but both the iPhone and Android app stores so far do a miserable job of helping people discover relevant apps they have not already heard about.

    So, if you are Lady Gaga or J.K. Rowlings or, and you already have an enormous media megaphone blasting your message to millions of people, it may be relatively easy to get them to download and install your stuff. But that is not so for most organizations, even highly successful ones. Which means you will need to develop a marketing campaign just to promote your app!

    3. Developing and maintaining a mobile app is relatively expensive. Leaving aside the spurious offers by offshore programmers to develop your mobile app for under $1,000 -- yes, it can be done, but probably not in a way that will meet your expectations -- mobile app development is expensive because it is device-specific. Each app needs to be developed and tested for at least two operating systems, iOS and Android, and a variety of different devices on each of those platforms since what works well for a small smartphone display is not likely to work well for a high-resolution tablet.

    If Microsoft's Windows Phone gains traction, as expected, and if Blackberry doesn't exit the market, you're looking at developing for 4 different platforms in order to be comprehensive. Each one requires a different version of your code to be tested and deployed, each has different requirements for app distribution, and each version will require periodic updates. Then, each time you develop an upgrade to your mobile app, you're looking at another mini marketing campaign to let all your customers know.

    If getting over these 3 hurdles seems a bit much for your organization, do not despair. There are less risky, more cost-efficient ways of addressing the mobile market simply by optimizing your website for mobile, or developing an app-like, web-optimized view of your website, often called a "web app."

    More on these web-based options in a future post.