Why The “Web Versus Application” Debate Is Irrelevant

Rarely a mobile conference goes by without this debate popping up: Should you build a mobile website or an application? I don’t think it really matters; in fact, I’d say it is irrelevant. This is just one of many topics where technology leads marketing by the nose— as is often the case in the mobile industry! Product strategists often forget to ask themselves the right questions: which product and services, for which audiences, at what cost, and when?

Consumer product strategists designing product experiences for mobile phones and smartphones must decide on their development priorities across the mobile Web and apps. While some believe this is a fundamental “either/or” choice, current consumer behavior suggests that consumers are using both. More than half of European (and 60% of US) consumers who download apps at least monthly also access the Internet via their mobile phones at least daily. In short, heavy app users are also heavy mobile Web users. The more frequently consumers access the Internet via their mobile phones, the more likely they are to download apps at least monthly. More than 10 billion apps have been downloaded cumulatively since the launch of the Apple App Store — the majority of them via iPhones. But this doesn’t stop iPhone owners from being the most frequent mobile Internet users: 72% of European iPhone owners (and 63% of US iPhone owners) access the mobile Internet on a daily basis.

The mobile Web and apps offer different benefits and serve different audiences. For now, mobile apps make the most of smartphone features because they integrate more deeply and more widely with the unique features of smart mobile devices that use an operating system. However, mobile websites cost less to reach a wider audience. The majority of consumers don’t own a smartphone and don’t access app stores; they are more likely to use a mobile browser and to access the Internet from their mobile phones. The barriers to accessing a site via a browser are lower than those to downloading an app — even for smartphone owners. Also, the fragmented nature of the mobile industry means that porting apps to different platform environments costs money — particularly when including maintenance and promotion costs.

I have covered this issue in more detail in a new Forrester report “Why The “Web Versus Application” Debate Is Irrelevant To Your Mobile Product Strategy.” Clients can access the report here.

Moving forward, both technologies will improve over time but will continue to coexist. Apps will benefit from mass-market smartphone penetration, but a majority of consumers across the globe will access the Internet, not apps. Mobile browsing technologies will improve significantly. Device-centric information like location increasingly can pass to the browser, while better user experiences and more rich-media-centric mobile websites are now available. HTML5 will greatly improve the audio and video capabilities of mobile browsers. However, it will be at least three years before the technology fully matures. It has to reach critical mass on consumers’ mobile handsets and in developers’ minds.

Improved browsing technologies will force apps to evolve. Too many existing apps fail to make the most of devices’ local features. In addition to talking to the local device, next-level apps should also talk to other apps through open APIs and interact with other devices. Apps will remain the best tools for engagement and will offer new business opportunities. Mobile apps currently present better opportunities for stronger engagement — not only because they offer richer services and experiences, but also because they place the brand icon on the user’s home screen. When coupled with a strong analytics tool, they also enable companies to better capture consumer behavior and even to develop more actionable CRM programs.  Moving forward, apps will provide better experiences by improving their exploitation of context and will expand into new areas like medical care and home security.

While we expect browsers and apps to coexist on tablets and smartphones in the next three to five years, the rise of the application era will have implications for existing business models and will open up new opportunities. Mobile services will be one of many customer touchpoints. App innovation started on smartphones, but the concept of app stores will expand to other increasingly connected devices and platforms. Apps will become touchpoints for content services. They will have to work across all platforms — including mobile, TV, and the PC. No matter what the technology used — be it a traditional Internet website on a PC or a mobile app on a mobile device — consumers will expect a seamless, cross-channel user experience. The service will have to be contextualized depending on the device’s form factor and the location from which the user is using her connected device.

That’s the reason why you will need a new cross-platform approach to loyalty. In the multidevice, multiconnection world, product strategists need more than a good product with a connection to win customer loyalty — they need to create a digital customer relationship and deliver that in a continuously connected experience across many devices. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the app versus mobile Web debate: What are you planning to develop? What are your consumers using? Please comment below!


It depends

I tend to agree with the thesis by Thomas Husson that the debate is irrelevant. At Modapt, we focus on one thing – optimizing websites for mobile devices. But we never suggest to our customers that they need to make a choice between building a mobile app or a mobile web site. I’m often asked by prospective customers if they should build a mobile application or use our service? I reply that it depends. What are you trying to achieve? What is your business model? What is your budget? Who is your target? Etc

But in almost all cases, if an organization is big enough or relevant enough to provide a mobile app, they also need to cater for the mobile web. Users don’t stop using the web from their mobile device just because they have access to an application. So, the real takeaway is that mobile apps and the mobile web are not mutually exclusive. Notwithstanding that fact, mobile web usage is growing at a blistering pace right now. We’ve all seen the industry studies but what makes me stand up and take notice is when our prospects and customers keep showing me their trend lines. Everyone we have spoken to this past month has seen the number of hits to their websites from mobile devices at least double in the past five months. At Modapt, we love that trend.

Thanks for sharing

Thanks for sharing. It's a good and informative article.Finally, an issue that I am passionate about. I have looked for information several hours. Your site is greatly appreciated.

And who pays for the development of native apps for x devices?

Basically, I agree that Apps and Mobile Web may both live happily ever after - BUT you have to accept major extra costs. Imagine a company who wants to be a) providing content via apps and b) a nice mobile homepage.. Wouldn't it be nice to cover both at once? Take for example the YOC Smart Web App - it is operating on a browser but feels like a native app and thus, combines the advantages of native applications with those of the mobile web.. and it can be delivered to all platforms (i.e.iPhone, BB, tablets, any other smart phones) without any further adjustment effort.. We are using it and love it, as it saves us having to develop a new app for each new platform. So, in summary, I think the offer of YOC is amazing and concepts like that will be the true winner of the ever-lasting discussion. Check it out: http://group.yoc.com/uk/YOC-Smart-Web-App,1640/

I fully agree on this

I fully agree on this position. To understand the requirements of the mentioned methodology an excellent case will be the automotive industry. As I expect nearly every 5th car will be delivered with mobile internet within the next 3 to 5 years. Because of the very special nature of car usability it will be an interesting path to observe how applications, web and underlying services will evolve in this environment. In the end we will see the same thing that is actually happening in the stationery internet where design criteria from mobile apps goes back into the design process of the traditional web.

It is relevant, fortunately to some extent

The context in which the debate is relevant is cost/time to market/quality of end user experience. Well designed native app provides better UX than mobile web app, but it costs significantly more. The price difference is especially noticeable when mobile web is seamless enough with new a generation of mobile transcoders like one we provide at http://www.mobilizetoday.com

I agree that both technology stacks are relevant and will coexists for a years ahead but business needs high ROI. It is obvious that from a cost/t2m/ux perspective the options order or path that businesses usually chose is:
1) mobile website transcoder/optimizer (with custom design option to enhance the UX)
2) own mobile website for the unique or relatively complex cases
3) native wrapper around mobile website from (1) or (2) built with PhoneGap or similar
4) 100% native app with great design

May businesses skip some options, some of them make a mistakes by spending too much time on (3) before they reach (4) - but based on our experience most end up with combination of (1) and (4) or (2) and (4).

If you take a look at the publishers as a market/segment leaders (Bloomberg, BNET etc) who benefit from a mobile user base utmost - they all have mobile web sites along with native app. How did they all start ? Mobile Web. And they will continue to maintain both.

Our company helps businesses to make a first step on a mobile avenue faster :-)

One of our UX Engineers

One of our UX Engineers disagrees. See his response here: http://bit.ly/jn4yob

Native App vs. WAP

When deciding between a WAP (HTML5) or a Native App, planners really should take note of the following....

Native apps are much easier to access as the app is actually downloaded/placed on a users Smartphone as a button for the user to access with or without internet access.

However, a WAP (HTML5) is a hyperlink/URL that you supply to your attendees for them to connect to from their Smartphone each/every time they want to access the content on your WAP. So if there is limited or no internet access or if the user is in a dead zone at a hotel or venue your attendees may have trouble accessing your WAP.

And, one of the most important things to also be aware of is that not all Smartphone users have Unlimited Data Usage on their cell phone plan. This means that every time your attendees hyperlink onto your WAP from their Smartphone, that user will be billed for data charges to access your URL.

However, EproMeetingApps has a solution that solves this problem! Since 80% of business travelers currently use a Smartphone (•Blackberry 30.4% •iPhone 24.7% •Android 31.2% •Windows Mobile 8.0%) and EproMeetingApps provides Native Apps for all 4 of those Smartphone Platforms... at ONE LOW ALL INCLUSVE Price, why not implement the Native App for the event?

By doing so, your attendees will get a much richer experience with your app, the app will be customized to your event, your attendees will be able to access the content within your app regardless of their internet connection and you (the meeting planner) will have the ability to edit the content within their app at anytime.

Please visit our website for more information: www.EproMeetingApps.com

Knowing the audience and

Knowing the audience and their needs is KEY. But mobile is also a different medium with a different language and many different possibilities. It's still new enough that users aren;t even sure what their needs are. (Who new we needed QR code readers?) Mobile is not the same medium as the web and users have totally different expectations. Right now, we're still in a phase like we were in early film history. We're filming stage plays instead of making movies. Some apps are imitating the web—others are not. For web-imitation, sure, why not go mobile-web. But if you are really building for the mobile medium, maybe you want to go native.

In some situations mobile web just doesn't work. In large conferences and events, for example, wi-fi is not always reliable. If I were an exhibitor interested in mobile sponsorship opportunities at a large trade show, I'd rather buy sponsorships on a native app because I would want my branding presence to be in-app 24/7.

The difference in cost between native and mobile-web development is not really that gargantuan, either. Some companies may think their customers are worth the extra development cost. People don't use apps twice if they think are "broken." A Nielsen survey last year also showed that bad apps lead to a lower opinion of the brand. If I am a large corporation, why would I want to risk that kind of brand damage to save a couple of thousand dollars here or there? Usability studies consistently show that users prefer native to mobile-Web apps. If you really cared about users, if you really cared about your customers, why not give them a killer mobile experience that isn't something that's merely web-lite?

May I recommend a blog post I wrote? Why Mobile-Web Apps are Like Cheap Hotels... http://bit.ly/fmrqKS