Develop a Mobile Web App or a Phone App? How to Decide

Mobile Moxie on the Road, Part I
Presented in Sydney, Australia; April 2011

How To Decide Whether a Mobile Web App or Phone App is Right for You

Mobile Moxie hit the road for Sydney in April, 2011 and presented on many topics for the Mobile Marketing Day and SMX Sydney. If you weren’t able to be there in person, this series of posts will be the next best thing! Starting off, we’ll delve into the tough decision that many businesses have to make when entering the mobile marketplace. Should you develop a Web App, a Phone App, or both? There are several factors to take into account, just to get started:

What are you trying to accomplish? Consider whether you are creating an app for brand awareness, brand engagement, conversion, viral engagement, page views or traffic, or some other goal.

Who is your audience? Do research! Find out who your target demographic is, and what type of mobile phone they are most likely to use. Determine the geographic and psychographic aspects of your audience to hone in on the most usable solution for them.

What is the use case? Create a solid use case for your mobile app. Make sure you know what you want the application to accomplish for its users, and who those users are. If the audience is not terribly tech-savvy, don’t make the application complicated. Assign a clear goal or task to be accomplished by your mobile app.

Will your target audience have a good connection? Once you determine what type(s) of phone your audience uses, you can learn where they will have the best data signal. This is important research to do, because building a complex app that requires a fast connection won’t do you any good if your demographic isn’t able to access and use it properly.

Now it is time to choose whether you should develop a mobile web application, or a mobile phone application. If you have the resources – do both! If not, here are the key differences between web apps and phone apps:

What phone apps and web apps have in common is that they both address basic mobile marketing goals.

So, who uses mobile web apps, or mobile websites, and who uses mobile phone apps? Services such as social media sites, SAAS sites, and shopping sites tend to utilize mobile optimized websites rather than native phone apps. Sports websites, entertainment sites and games tend to more heavily rely on phone apps because they have a richer level of interactivity that would take too long to download from the web on the fly. Music sites go both ways, leaning slightly more towards phone apps than web apps, depending on whether or not music is streamed.

It is important to consider the CBA (cost benefit analysis) of both web apps and phone apps before choosing which one to develop. What is good and what is bad about each option? Both have up-sides and draw-backs.

Web Apps – The Good

• Websites optimized for mobile phones perform well on all types of mobile phones that have Internet browsing capabilities.

• Web apps are easy to manage – you only have to make updates once and they do not have to be created, submitted, and approved through multiple App Stores.

• You have more freedom and flexibility because App Stores do not have to approve your application.

• You won’t have to learn a bunch of new development languages. (Though, learning HTML 5 is a good idea).

• HTML 5 allows your web app to have phone-like qualities like location awareness and drag and drop.

Web Apps – The Bad

• Different mobile browsers work differently so you will want to do testing on several different phones and browsers.

• The rendering environment is very unpredictable because there are so many mobile browsers and screen sizes.

• Web apps will not be perfect all the time – there are too many variables.

• There is very limited interaction with phone stuff – like the shake feature on the iPhone.

• You miss the opportunity for representation and a presence in highly visited app stores.

Phone Apps – The Good

• Phone Apps offer the most predictability for development. You will always know what size screens to design for, and what the input mechanism will be.

• By being included in app stores you get access to a great targeted marketing opportunity in a semi-controlled marketplace.

• Your developers can be great at one particular programming language, rather than adequate at many different languages.

• Access phone’s native functionality such as tilting and shaking.

• Phone apps work better when there is a slow data connection because they rely more on pre-loaded content rather than content from the web.

Phone Apps – The Bad

• You have a limited audience (only users of one phone) OR you must develop multiple apps, (one for each mobile OS), which can get expensive!

• It costs additional money to submit your app to the various app stores.

• After all your hard work, there is still a chance that the marketplace can reject your app, and then you will have to make updates.

• All updates must be resubmitted through the app stores to be approved. This can really add up in time and effort if you have multiple phone apps and multiple updates.

• App marketplaces are already crowded, frequently with bad copycat apps, so it can be difficult to make quality apps stand out.

The Best of Both Worlds

If, after doing your research and asking yourself the questions outlined above, you still do not know which to choose, the best of both worlds is to make a phone app that is very web dependent. To do this, you basically create a shell for web content to be served through a phone app. These shells are easy to make in many different languages, so making multiple phone apps becomes more accessible. Also, the HTML can be updated without having to resubmit the shell – since it is driven by your actual website. Some excellent examples of apps that do this are Facebook, Pandora, Urbanspoon, Yelp and more. To access this presentation, please see the slide deck App v. Web on