Going Mobile Basics

Lately I have been asked a lot about mobile. Specifically, “Should I Have a Mobile Website or a build an APP?” If you are getting an answer to this question you are talking to the wrong people. The right answer that you should be receiving is that the decision is not Web APP or Native APP. There are more than 2 options! Technically there are 4 possible mobile options you should consider.

Native apps, which are coded with a specific programming language (Objective C for iOS, Java for Android). These mobile applications are fast, reliable, and powerful but are tied to a mobile platform. That means you must duplicate them using the appropriate programming language in order to target another mobile platform. Nearly all games are native apps.

Hybrid apps, which rely on development frameworks like Sencha, PhoneGap, Titanium, Rhomobile, ParticleCode, Corona, Mosync, Worklight, BkRender. These mobile apps offer a very interesting compromise because they ensure cross-platform compatibility and can access the phone’s hardware (camera, GPS, user’s contacts). IGN’s mobile social network Dominate is just such a hybrid app.

Dedicated web app, which is a mobile web site tailored to a specific platform or form factor, like the LinkedIn web app which was designed for Android and iOS, but not for other smartphones or feature phones.

Generic mobile app, which are mobile web sites designed to match every web-enabled phone, like the Wikipedia mobile page.

Ok, that gets complicated. How do you know what best to do? Good question. There is no best choice. It’s all about context, and that is evolving very quickly. What I know is that: If your mobile application is mainly used to display and interact with online content or services, avoid the native choice. On the other hand, if your application is mainly used offline, a native app will offer a better user experience.

In either case, what you should remember is that mobile is not only about choosing between web and native apps. It requires a more sophisticated approach. Here’s my advice to help you define an effective mobile strategy:

1. Build an API infrastructure to allow easy and reliable access to your content and services.
2. If you decide to use native apps, hire or train an internal team on major mobile platforms’ technologies (iOS, Android) and use sub-contractors for minor mobile platforms (RIM)
3. Don’t try to replicate your entire web site. Rethink your offer on a local level and focus on what brings most value in a mobile context.

To simplify a bit more lets compare Native APP to Web APP:

Native Apps: Must be downloaded from something like the iTunes Store, the Android Market, the Amazon Appstore, or a similar service. Native apps play locally on an iPhone, iPad, or other device. That means they ‘execute’ on your system not on a remote web server. In general, native apps provide the most options for rich media and interactivity.

Web Apps: Highly interactive web-based programs, such as the reservation system at American Airlines (aa.com), provide app-like experiences from a web site. Web apps play in a web browser over a network (for example: wifi or 3G). Web apps require advanced programming skills.

If you want to reach anyone, anytime, anywhere …

Native Apps: Most native apps require a relatively high-speed connection or a long wait for the initial download. After an app is downloaded, some can play anywhere, anytime, but many apps are designed to download additional information, such as GPS coordinates or news updates and require a connection for the latest information.

Web Apps: Web apps require users to be connected, but if done well, they don’t require a very fast connection and they can be updated in real time very efficiently. All web apps essentially run a program on a remote web server. Lose that connection, and you get nothing.

If you want to publish to many devices at once …

Native Apps: When you develop apps you have to create a version for each operating system. That means a different version for each of the following:
• Apple iPad / iPhone
• Google Android ‘Droid’
• Blackberry
• Windows Mobile
• and more …
Watch the growth of HTML 5 to solve this problem.

Web Apps: If you’re focused on the latest in tablet and touchscreen devices, you can do a lot with a web app. If you want to reach the broadest audience, you’ll want to deliver just the right version to each device using device detection and content adaptation.

If you want to spend as little money as possible …

Native Apps: At the high end, you can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing rich-media interactive apps, especially when you factor in all the video, animation, and other assets that make games and other applications visually appealing — and popular. Creating an app for the iPhone or iPad can cost anything from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the complexity.

Web Apps: A team of programmers and other specialists builds most web apps. Sites like Gmail and Twitter represent hundreds of thousands of development hours. At the entry level, you can create many rich web app features with JavaScript, jQuery, or jTouch. At the high end, you can do almost anything these days if you have the time, budget, and programming expertise.

Steve Rockman


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