A lot of people I talk to are confused between mobile websites and mobile apps or rather, they can’t appreciate what the difference is. This makes it difficult for them to decide what to do next. Quite simply they are not the same thing so rather than try to choose between them, I prefer look at it like this: you need a mobile website and you want a mobile app.
Every company, product, service and an awful lot of individuals, has a website these days. It might just be brochure ware and advertorial or it might be a portal providing a variety of business information (blogs, forums, specs, downloads, promotions, ecommerce, videos and podcasts, etc.). Whatever level you have reached, your investors, customers and suppliers are looking at you through this lens using their trusty web browsers. Except now they are not just using a browser on their desktop, they have mobile devices, smart phones and tablets.
RIM made data plans (and hence web browsing) a reality with the Blackberry way back and Apple made data plans a necessity with the launch of the iPhone four years ago – that’s a long time ago in technology terms. So popular is the trend in using mobile data that unlimited data plans have now been extinct for nearly a year. You may think that this is all about downloading Angry Birds, syncing email and watching YouTube but mobile web browsers now account for 5% of all page views and this share is growing.
Still not convinced?
That’s someone else’s website I’m talking about, right? You may not be sure if your audience is using mobile devices or not but we are and it is easy to check. We run some serious websites for some big customers using our CMS product and we can see what’s going on using web stats like Google Analytics. Some parts of these web sites are accessed as much as 25% of the time by iPhones. That’s one in four hits!
So you need a mobile website.
After years of scaling pages up for higher screen resolutions you now need to encourage and support the new trend by reformatting content to fit into smaller screens. You need to engage with these users quickly and cheaply so that you don’t miss the boat.
On this point there’s good news as well. You have all the content and source of the content already available in your main website, this is just about another template. You have a site map and story. You have navigation. You have content managers to maintain the pages. Moreover, there are some lovely tools out there from people like Sencha and jQuery that will help you build websites that look like an app with sexy transitions and effects. You need a mobile website because a simple repackaging keeps you in the game and you don’t have to wait a moment longer to start.
However, these new users are getting used to apps, app stores and consuming data in app format. You can probably feel the way that apps are starting to reshape your website strategy as well. The dilemma is whether you have time or not and whether you should build that app before someone else beats you to it. This is why you want an app.
Here again you have options based on building a mobile website. It is relatively trivial to create a “wrapper” for your mobile website using mobile SDKs and use this to publish a “poor man’s” app. It’s so simple there are step-by-step guides on the Internet and make no mistake, “poor” doesn’t imply an “inferior” result. As we revealed earlier there are tools that can turn your web pages into a very rich and rewarding user experience.
Eventually, of course, a time will come where you want to do more in your app than browse web pages and at this point it’s not about needing or wanting anymore, an app is a “must have”. This point comes when you try to create functionality that emulates traditional web applications such as logons, secure access and back end logic – traditional server functionality. Often its because you want to charge for services or control regional content or functionality using app stores. And there are other things such as push messaging and social media integration to consider, features which we build into our apps as standard.
Now the strengths of using the mobile devices’ API and operating system rather than a web browser begin to outweigh the workarounds and development tweaks needed to force the website approach to work.
But on a final note, don’t rush into building an app just because you want one. Right now the shiny tools are the iPhone and the iPad and there are lots of design shops making apps for these devices. But will they port to other platforms? We make apps that work on iOS, Android and RIM. Why? Android has already outsold iPhone in the US so it will overtake Apple in the app market and don’t forget the Blackberry users are a well established bunch who will be around for a while to come. They all have different styles and flavours, performance and attribution. So are you going to be remembered as the one hit wonder on iTunes or are you here with us for the long term?