Over the last few years the world has gone totally mad for native mobile apps. These downloaded apps can certainly provide a rich user experience on whatever smartphone they have been developed for. They can access the very heart of the device, which brings a whole raft of possibilities that arguably you won’t find through a mobile browser right now. Graphics are animated, phonebooks can be integrated, rotation can be registered, GPS data can be shared and so on.
While there is no doubt that apps can be great, it is important to look at the bigger picture when developing an application for mobile users. Firstly, not everyone owns the latest smartphone, nor are they likely to in the near future. By developing an installed app for the iPhone or Android, for example, it will only be accessible to a small proportion of the total market when you consider every single mobile phone out there. Not only that, but just looking at the smartphone market alone, there are iPhone, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile and other me-too manufacturers to develop for. The costs quickly multiply and app development gets very expensive, very quickly. With a browser-based approach it is possible using the right publishing platform to significantly cut development costs with a build-once-for-all approach that embraces every mobile user. And for the user, no upgrade installations are ever required.
As for promoting an app, developers are at present at the mercy of the relevant app stores and their policies for acceptance, pricing and promotion. Going down the browser-based Web service route makes the application easy to promote; and what’s more, only a single URL needs to be ‘advertised’ because the same one will work for all. The browser-based approach presents an opportunity for unrestricted connection with audiences. The user is no-longer required to install and you don’t have to battle to, or pay for, the top of an app store. You are free to promote and distribute your services as you see fit.
One advantage native apps claim to have is that they work even when there is no Internet connection. But with more and more 3G coverage and Wi-Fi, along with unlimited Internet access packages, this is becoming far less important.
Of all the arguments for the native apps, the fact that installed apps can provide a richer experience has been the most compelling. However, HTML5 looks set to change all that and may well prove to be the native app killer. For example, HTML5 will bring a multimedia richness to Web apps without a Flash or Silverlight plugin.
The future will move away from installed applications and towards browser-based services. These are available anywhere, anytime, on any operating system and are continually – and importantly for the user, seamlessly – refreshed and updated. We have already seen the benefits of applications in the cloud with the bigger brothers in the software space.
The app brigade will tell you that mobile Internet sites don’t compare to apps. From a certain point of view, they are right. And although the release of HTML5 will go a long way to making Web-based mobile services a richer experience, the decision to choose either a mobile Internet strategy or one based on apps will depend largely on exactly what you want to achieve. For single purpose apps such as spirit levels and tilting pints of beer, it’s apps all the way. For anything that offers dynamic data, interactive services and user participation, then you really should give mobile Internet a go. It’s more dynamic, cheaper to develop and update, more flexible, easier to promote and it opens up your market place to any Internet capable handset.
Rich Holdsworth, CTO at Wapple
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members