Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is an app the right solution or is a browser based solution right for my goals

A lot of companies are asking “What’s my app?” instead of “What’s my strategy?” That’s led to some dubious decision making in what’s become a mobile app gold rush among CEOs wanting a “mobile strategy”.  It could come back to haunt brands and publishers alike as an understanding of how people react to mobile evolves.

Mobile is evolving rapidly as the technology expands. Fragmentation can be found within each platform and especially between the platforms, leaving many to question which path is the best for their company. The answer a year ago was invariably a mobile app available in Apple’s iTunes store, feeding a $2 billion business in 2010. Today there are considerations for the Google App store, the Blackberry App store and the Microsoft App store making the app approach a challenge from a distribution perspective and a cost perspective. Still there are now armies of developers specializing in building native apps, manytimes even if it’s not the right answer for a client.  Many brands and publishers arrive at an answer to this question without asking the right questions.

It has been said that the people who really got rich in the California gold rush weren't the prospectors, but the people who sold them the tools.  In today's world of mobile development is the tool provider and many times if a company is asking for the wrong tool a developer will still sell it. 

Here’s the thing: apps weren't meant to be a long-term play. They were born out of the limitations of the existing mobile platforms. When the iPhone first launched, before the mobile version of the Safari browser took full advantage of HTML5 and a year before the Apple App Store launched, web apps reigned supreme. But they had limited functionality and were often confused with mobile-optimized websites. This experience is the taste that web apps have so recently left in everyone’s mouth over two years later. The truth is, besides a few features, HTML5 web apps can give native apps a run for their money. Still, in the consumer mind, a rich mobile experience is synonymous with an app downloaded from iTunes, not a web app.There's no question that, at a minimum, your brand website needs to be optimized for mobile. There’s nothing more frustrating to a mobile consumer than finding an unusable site on mobile. This can be fixed as simply as reformatting the site with CSS, but always make sure that the same content is accessible in both places. A mobile-optimized website in many instances can do much more than an app. When your goal is information about your brand and not a reference tool, utility, or a game, you don't need an app. Whether native or web, an app should be something with staying power.

With the current state of the Android and other app stores, web apps could absolutely give those platforms stiff competition. There are many advantages to this approach. You only have to develop a web app once, with minor adjustments per platform which greatly lowers your development cost. There’s also no submission and approval process, so any update you make can go live instantly. Depending on what you want your app to do, where your target audience is, and your budget, a web app may be the perfect solution for you. TxT2Look recently developed a mobile app for realtors and went web app over native app, for example. 

Going the web app route is not without its drawbacks, however. Say you develop a web app. It will be a challenge getting it onto people’s phones unless you have a captive audience. You’re pretty much on your own for distribution. IMockups, an iPhone app venture, sold between 100 and 350 sales of their $9.99 app per day through its own efforts of increasing the visibility of their app, but the highest spikes in their daily sales, ranging from 450 to 850 sales per day, were all a result of Apple's marketing. The exposure received on launch day and then again when they were featured for two weeks reflected the power of the iTunes distribution. The fact is the Apple iTunes store is a powerful distribution source.

"I don't see people abandoning native apps completely for a lot of different reasons in the near term, but I definitely think there will be a bigger push toward mobile web and a push to a bigger strategy between mobile and native apps,” said AndrĂ© Charland, president of Nitobi, which makes PhoneGap, an open-source product that allows publishers to build an HTML5 app and distribute it as a native app to all the major platforms. 

Nike is taking such a hybrid strategy. When viewing its website on your mobile device, you have a perfectly tailored experience that allows you to dig through everything Nike. Nike offers their fair share of apps as well. Searching the iTunes App Store provides you with eight different apps, seven of which could not exist in any form other than a native app because they take advantage special features of the phone, like the iPhone’s accelerometer. Apps like Nike+ GPS take advantage of device specific hardware, while Nike BOOM and Nike Football+ utilize your iPod library and allow you to capture and upload video. In those cases, it’s hard to dispute that going native wasn’t the right choice.

The most important step to a mobile strategy is also often overlooked: making a site mobile compatible. "A large percentage of the mobile phones sold today are smart phones.  These new users and the existing users are trying to find their websites in their phone browser.  They expect to see a mobile-optimized version of their brand's website." says John Gallinaugh, CEO of TxT2Look, a leading browser based mobile development company.

Finding the right mobile strategy isn’t an easy task. Sifting through trend to find long term value is a difficult process.  The platforms and tech tools are new and every month seems to bring new ideas. The most value will come from finding a development team that manages the new ideas and regularly presents them to their clients.  There is huge value in starting this process now though.  Whether you start now or start later when mobile is "more stable" you will still have to learn what works best for your company.  It is better to learn while the stakes are lower now because making the same learning mistakes later will likely cost your company much more.  

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