First, let me preface this by saying if you don’t own a smartphone, then this blog post probably won’t be for you.
Second, if you’re STILL reading this, it means you’re interested in the topic. I suggest you stop living in the dark ages and get one of the wonderful smart phone devices out there that allow you to explore topics such as this. Marketing is moving fast so make sure your business is up to par with the new standards and new media.
It’s been coming down to the cross roads lately, with the emergence of more sophisticated mobile web apps popping up on the horizon. What direction will developers eventually move to? We’ve noticed that since Google had tried to take the native app approach but was shut down from the app store with the Google Voice, that they’ve been taking full advantage of the web app game.
Google seems to be really involved with web apps and it might be hard to completely turn them into the native app side.
Apple on the other hand is clearly on point with native apps- as is Android and Blackberry. And why not? They’re gaining revenue from the use of native apps on their smartphones. But are they really bringing their users the best smartphone experience when HTML 5 could bring a rich web app experience?
From another viewpoint, when you’re a brand looking to expand your reach to the mobile audience, are you better off having a web application built for your site? Or are you better mobilized as an application? Which will ultimately dominate?
The Native App
I have an iPhone, so for the sake of this post, I’ll be referring to Native apps as ones on the iPhone. Native apps are ones that live on the smartphone. You know, your Facebook application, Words with Friends… all of these are native applications that you can download from an application directory of sorts. Sometimes they’re free and sometimes they cost you $5.99, $9.99 or more.
Native apps are written specifically for the smartphone that they live on, and are downloaded directly to your phone. So what are the benefits of this for businesses that are looking to move into the mobile market?
For one, multitasking on the iPhone. You can have multiple native apps open at once and use them all. You can also do this on web apps but it’s not nearly as convenient as being able to click them on your home screen or risk closing web apps within your browser. In my opinion, this gives the native application a better chance of being used more. There’s also:
Marketing and exposure- There’s a directory where you can find these applications. There’s also tons of resources that outline “Top xx iPhone Business Apps” or “Top xx BlackBerry Fitness Apps.” People WANT to write about applications and you’ll see them everywhere. You’ll never find a shortage of ones to use, and plus, the iTunes directory, Android Market and BlackBerry App directory are all available to browse through.
If you were to release an application for your business (or to compliment your business) you can bet that there won’t be a lack of venues to market your new app on.
Advertising- Nothing is ever free of advertising, and a native app is no exception. With iAds, you get access to a whole network of advertising. Your brand or your application, whichever you choose to promote, will be visible for all to see. You’ll be able to also get metrics on the ads that you’re placing. This can come in handy when trying to incorporate strategies involving target markets for mobile users. It could open up a whole new can of analytics to understand fans of your brand.
Word of Mouth- Native apps are always what friends seem to recommend to eachother. You don’t ever hear someone say, “Hey! Did you check out the web app for http://www.facebook.com.” You always hear them referring to the application and whatever updates are going on. Most people don’t even know that there’s a Facebook web app that’s actually more functional than the application. Why? Because friends share native apps.
No Hiccups- When you’re running a native app, you won’t be experiencing the browser lag that comes along with web apps. I notice it a lot when I’m using the Google web apps. It’s nice to have the web layout, but when it comes down to speed, I would much rather go to an application that’s already queued up on my phone. Plus, some don’t even need the internet to run. Another bonus.
API usage- The native applications have the ability to use various features of your smart phone. IE: the accelerometer on the iPhone.
I took the liberty of asking Joey Schluchter, a developer, a few questions to get his general opinions on native apps and offline caching for web apps.
In regards to native apps, I had asked him, “I realize that it really is dependent on the business and industry that the application is built for, but do you see more benefit in a native application or a web app in general?”
“In a native app, for the user, the experience is better as the ability to know the exact hardware constraints and the ability to use them to their maximum potential. For the business, much more data can be extracted and more content seamlessly delivered when you have native control. Although web apps are catching up, for now native has more benefits to both the user and the business.”
I think his view on allowing the business to control how the content is delivered, as well as how data can be extracted, helps us understand some benefits that the end user may not consider when using an application.
You can see why smartphones are hanging onto native apps so tightly.
What about these highly coveted web apps that it seems we’re moving towards? Will these be beneficial to businesses looking to expand into the mobile market? Well, here’s some differences you’ll notice with the web apps.
Interface Capabilities- You’ll notice that if there’s a web app version of an actual native app, there’s quite a few differences in the interface and capabilities. If you look at the Facebook web app, you’ll notice that you personal activity stream shows what profiles you’ve commented on; something that’s lacking in the native application.
If you’re worried about all the different smart phones, don’t be. While cross-platform developing will be a task, there are are options available when working with C# and .net to convert for different platforms.
Geo-Location Capabilities- Generally thought of as a native application feature, there is actually the ability to utilize geo-location on certain browsers on smart phones. Facebook places, for instance, works on both the web app and the native app. As a business, you can run location based sales and specials, on either a location based applications such as FourSquare, or your own, which will take full advantage of real-time marketing.
Offline Caching- Offline caching makes for a temporary database backup. For example, If you’re shopping on a site and you end up leaving it, for a short period of time, your shopping cart will still be cached and ready to play.
Instant Interface/Application Updating- Another benefit that web apps have over native applications is the fact that all development updates are almost instantaneous. You don’t need to wait for V.2 to come out to fix stability issues and add a patch- and your consumers/users won’t need to wait for you to release the version and go through the pesky download process.
Automatical Approval- You don’t have to try and filter your application through a smartphone company to get it approved. Web apps are automatically approved and allowed for use because… well… it’s on the web. And really- they can’t control what you’re looking at. They CAN, however, control what is available to you through the marketplace. Depending on what your company is, this could be a big benefit to you. If you work in a questionable industry (like the sex/escort industry… or you’re just Google and trying to get an Google Voice approved… haha! I made a funny!) you may want to stick to web apps.
No Cost- Yes, there will be a cost for development of this web application, but on the consumer end, it’ll be free. There are free native apps in the app store too, so this isn’t a huge advantage, but just something to think about. The more extensive a native application gets, the more likely a company is to charge for it. With web apps, you can get as complicated as you want without worrying about the consumer/user having to spend a dime- which can easily be the difference between a conversion and a walk away when offering a native application.
I had asked Joey Schluchter what benefits he saw in web apps, such as offline caching, and his response was,
“If it’s a game, then I see offline caching as a huge plus. But most games are now online multi-players where you can see leader boards and such. Kind of tough to replicate that experience when cached. The big benefit with web apps is the ability to develop ONE platform. I realize that iOS and Android have unique browsers, but you still have one code base to deal with. This allows more rapid development and innovation for the app.”
Soooooo?? What’s the Verdict?
In my opinion, it’s really hard to give a straight shot answer- mainly because each industry is different and they all have different requirements as to what they would be hoping to offer in an application.
For retail stores hoping to offer specials and sales, and pull in business, I would say native applications are the way to go- mainly because they’ll almost always get approved (I won’t dare say always because nothing is definite) and it’s much more convenient to click into an application like FourSquare or Facebook Places, rather than logging into the web app. In this case, it’s all about convenience, especially for real-time marketing.
The convenience is there.
For companies that want to offer services involving video and design I’d say web apps are more beneficial.
Really, it comes down to who you’re marketing to. Most people don’t realize that on an iPhone, you can “bookmark” a web app and actually have a button on your homescreen for it. VOILA! (Almost) Instance access! Aside from novices, newer smartphone users (or younger smart phone users) will most likely be looking for applications in the app directory, and not necessarily understanding or experimenting with web apps. This is where offering geo-location native apps, for your business, will be beneficial.
All in all, I’d venture to say that web apps will likely gain more steam as time goes on. While there are plenty of marketing benefits to native applications, they’re not as free and liberating as web apps. Also, depending on the restrictions each smart phone marketplace imposes, they may be locking out part of the market for industries that want to mobilize and offer applications but may not be family friendly.
The time is now to focus efforts in web apps. The success Apple’s made with the app store will increase the the demand for native apps; it’s the most convenient and obvious way for people to use applications. Web designers and developers can build device optimized web experiences- once users notice there are web apps available that give the user the same, if not a better experience, than native apps, there may be a noticeable paradigm shift on both the business and consumer end.
What do you think? Will mobile web applications take precedence over native applications? Or will it stay a shared market for quite some time into the future?