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App vs Mobile Web
For some years now I’ve been reading and debating about the worth for a software developer or a company to get into mobile development.
I’m not talking about mobile first and all that jazz. Let’s say you’re a company who’s got a product or service that is already well established on the web. You have customers who successfully use your platform and you have a well oiled web development team where everyone is on the same page, technology wise.
Bam! Here comes the mobile era! Should you get on the train or not?
For the untrained eye this might be a no-brainer: Of course you should get into mobile development! Mobile is the trend! It’s where everything is happening right now! Don’t you want to be there? Well, there’s more to it than meets the eye. There are different ways to be there and there’s some good arguments against going the path of developing a mobile app.
The way I see it, in a scenario like this, it’s almost imperative to develop a mobile app.

State of Affairs

Ok so let’s pick up the previous example and let’s assume this company sells an online service that makes sense to be available on mobile devices. They have two options:

  • Build a mobile app. If so, they have to build one for iOS and one for Android if they want to cover majority of the mobile platforms market.
  • Expect users to keep using the web app on mobile devices. If so, they have to make sure this web app adapts seamlessly to different mobile devices.

The Endeavor

Mobile vs Desktop UsersIf you’ve ever developed software you know that it’s expensive. A good solid piece of software needs hard work, knowledgeable developers and multidisciplinary teams. After that piece of software is done you have to maintain it and make sure it runs smoothly. All of which cost money. Getting into mobile development means that this company should upgrade its development team to either hire at least one iOS developer and one Android developer or educate its current development team for them to be able to develop the iOS and Android apps themselves. Either way it’s going to be expensive.
On the other hand, this company could just tweak its existing web app to be fully responsive, work that could perfectly be done by its existing development team. Then clients could just keep using the usual app through their mobile devices browsers.
There are other arguments in favor of the web app to. With mobile apps it’s harder to break the barrier of discoverability. To discover something new on the web is in fact easier because you just have to follow links. You don’t have to install anything to see if it interests you or fits your needs. The process of installing an app may not be hard or cumbersome, but it’s a barrier that needs be overcome in order to try the software. It feels like to much of a commitment to something that you don’t know yet if it suits you.
Even more so because this mobile app has to compete for the real estate of your device. As if it were not hard enough to be competing in your market with other similar companies, you now have to compete with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others alike for real estate in mobile devices. There is a limit to how many apps users will have on their phones. On a standard Android device you will likely have two screens worth of apps when you un-box it. There is a limit to how many more apps a user will install before starting to delete other ones. Your app better be worthy it.

Worth the effort

App vs Mobile UsageOk so I agree, in this scenario, it is expensive to develop native mobile apps. But tweaking a web app to be fully responsive isn’t the only alternative. This company could still leverage its development team expertise and develop an hybrid or a JavaScript native mobile app, a mobile app that is developed using web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript.
If your a web developer and you’ve ever tried to make a fully responsive web site, you know how that can easily become a nightmare. Also, you should make use of common mobile paradigms like swipe for more options or pull to refresh. People are already accustomed to finding these behaviours on the mobile apps they already use. Why do you think there are som many cases where there’s a site for the desktop and a different one for the mobile device? Haven’t you ever noticed to be redirected to a different address (something like http://m.yadayadayada.com or http://mobile.yadayadayada.com) while accessing a web site on your mobile device, that you usually access on the desktop at http://yadayadayada.com? So if your going to end up with two different web apps anyway, why not make a proper mobile app?
As to breaking the barrier of discoverability, it’s not that linear. It is a bit harder, having to install the app is in fact a barrier. But app stores are getting better every day with mechanisms in place like demo videos and screenshots, related apps, recommendations, ratings, etc. These are things a user doesn’t have when surfing the web. There are pros and cons on each side of this barricade.
Fighting for real estate on the mobile device is definitely the biggest challenge. It’s even an unfair one. But it should not stop a company from making the effort. You should strive to make an app that is as smaller as possible and intelligent at using resources. And if your service is really important to your clients, they will make room on their devices.

But wait, there’s more

App vs Mobile WebThere’s two more reasons why I think developing a mobile app should be considered.
From a marketing point of view, one should not discard the power of having a presence in the Apple App Store and in the Google Play Store. If  you’re not in either store, are you really on the mobile era?
People are surfing the web differently nowadays. They’re using it more on their mobile devices that on the desktop, and with the advent of IoT, this usage pattern is only going to get bigger. People look for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar social networks to find general content and entertainment. They look for YouTube for video and Spotify or Apple Music for audio. Rarely they open Safari or Google Chrome on their mobile devices. I look at this and can’t help to think that these apps are specialised browsers for the Internet, focused on delivering specific types of content and specific types of services.
On mobile, the general purpose browser may be dying. We all need to get ready for it.
Content Usage
 

David Santos

Software Engineer at Polarising / Big on technology helping and supporting people’s lives.