What’s The Best App Approach for Your Business?
Whether yours is a startup business looking to bring a break-through product to market or you operate a traditional bricks and mortar company seeking a better way to run the business, a custom mobile application could be the bridge to maintaining your competitive advantage.
What’s the next step to activating your concept?
Determining the right mobile app form at the start of your project will save time, money and possibly even your brand name. From a technology standpoint, you need to determine if you need a native app or a mobile website that behaves like an app. What are the differences?
Let’s start with basic definitions. A true mobile app – also known as a native app – is an app that runs directly on a device’s operating system. You are probably familiar with native apps as the downloadable software from the Apple App Store (for iPhones) or from Google Play (for Android mobile devices). The binary code on which these apps are based interact directly with the operating system.
A website optimized for mobile devices, a “web app” as they are sometimes called, is a website that responds to the screen of the device in which it appears as well as the browser being used. To be clear, mobile websites and mobile apps are not the same thing.
Mobile App (Native app) Basics
A mobile app is also known as a native app. Once it’s downloaded from an app marketplace – such as the Apple App Store or Android’s Google Play Store – onto a smartphone or tablet device, they reside within your device and are launched by tapping on an icon. From a coding standpoint, a native app is designed and coded for a specific device. iPhone apps are written in Objective-C while Android apps are usually written in Java.
- A mobile app gives businesses the advantage of having their own real estate on a customer’s device. Because users have to download and install the app, businesses have more control over their presence on a device than they would with a mobile website. For instance, a mobile app can be closed or inactive, but still work in the background to send geo-targeted push notifications and gather data about customer’s preferences and behaviors. Mobile apps make it easy to deploy loyalty programs and use mobile payments using a single platform.
- Mobile apps provide full access to the native device feature set such as the camera and microphone.
- No Internet connection required – If you need to provide offline access to content or perform functions without a network/wireless connection, native apps make a lot of sense. Generally speaking, it’s also much easier to access a mobile app than a mobile website — all it takes is one tap, versus having to open a Web browser then type in a URL.
- Ability to perform complex calculations – If you need something that will take data and allow you to manipulate it with complex calculations a native app gets that done.
- As you might have guessed, native apps are more expensive than web apps because they need to be written for multiple platforms: once for iOS in Objective-C and again in Java for Android. Therefore, mobile apps are more expensive to build AND maintain because of the disparate systems and coding requirements.
- Lack of immediate engagement. Native apps require the user to first download and install the app from a marketplace before the content or application can be viewed. Sometimes this can be a significant barrier between initial engagement and action / conversion.
Mobile Website Basics
Nothing too tricky here — a mobile website is similar to any other website in that it consists of browser-based HTML pages and connected via the Internet (3G or 4G networks, WiFi). Mobile websites are distinct from standard websites because of they are designed for the smaller handheld displays and touch-screen interfaces. Your home page will appear differently on mobile devices than on desktop or laptop computers but that’s a good thing. Design-wise, all visible elements self-adjust in the interest of practicality. This “responsive” element of mobile websites allows them to automatically detect the mobile device and redirect the viewer to the mobile version. As mentioned above, use of this type of “app” requires an Internet connection because the software does not reside on the mobile device.
- A mobile website can behave as an app. Just like a standard website, mobile websites can be developed as database-driven web applications that act very much like native apps. A mobile web application can be a practical alternative to native app development.
- Cost-effectiveness. Mobile websites have to be written once, in a mobile-responsive format and are device-agnostic. They require considerably less time to develop than a native app, especially if you need to have a presence on different platforms (requiring development of multiple apps).
- Web apps are often designed to look and behave like native apps.
- Speed-to-market. Because of the simplified coding requirements involved, mobile websites require less time to spin up.
- Immediate engagement with users. A mobile website is instantly accessible to users via a browser across a range of devices (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry).
- Broader compatibility / accessibility. If your mobile strategy is underscored by PR or marketing, a mobile website is going to make sense as a practical first step in your mobile outreach strategy. This is because a mobile website has a number of inherent advantages over apps, including broader accessibility, compatibility and cost-effectiveness.
- Instant updates. A mobile website is much more dynamic than a native app in terms of pure flexibility to update content. If you want to change the design or content of a mobile website you simply publish the edit once and the changes are immediately visible; updating an app on the other hand requires the updates to be pushed to users, which then must be downloaded in order to update the app on each type of device.
- Mobile websites are more easily found. Because pages can be displayed in search results and listed in industry-specific directories, it makes it easier for qualified visitors to find you. Most importantly, visitors to your regular website can be automatically sent to your mobile site when they are on a handheld (using device-detection). In contrast, the visibility of apps are largely restricted to manufacturer app stores.
Hybrid App Basics
The key difference from a website is that hybrid apps are hosted inside a native application that utilizes a mobile platform’s WebView. This “nativity” enables them to access device capabilities such as the camera, accelerometer, and contacts, features that are often restricted to access from inside mobile browsers. The main downside to hybrid apps – specifically those that are 3-D games, or rely heavily on device features – are performance-related.
- Easily design for various form factors (including iPads and other tablets) using responsive web design
- Access to some device and operating system features
- Build once – using one code base – and run on multiple devices
- Reduced development time and costs
- Ability to share code, skills and resources across web apps and mobile apps
- Increased visibility because the hybrid app can be distributed natively (app stores) and to mobile browsers (via search engines)
- Performance issues for certain types of apps (especially those relying one native device functionality
- Access limitations to native device features
- Risk of being rejected by Apple if app does not feel native enough
- Difficult to create non-HTML/web type functionality
If your app is heavily based on content, the benefits of a hybrid app far outweigh the disadvantages described above. In those cases where an app will be dependent upon native device features and high performance expectations, the drawbacks of the hybrid approach are probably show-stoppers.
Deciding on your technical app approach depends on many variables. Most importantly, your target audience and their online habits and behaviors should sit squarely at the forefront in your planning. From there, choosing between a native app, a mobile website or a hybrid app – or even a migration plan that starts with a web app and moves to a native app – as your product gains marketplace awareness and acceptance – depends on your answers to the following questions:
- Which mobile platforms are you targeting?
- Is an app store the most appropriate place to distribute you application?
- Does your app require the native capabilities of the mobile device?
- What are the technical abilities of your development team?
In some cases you may decide you native app, but it’s pretty safe to say that it rarely makes sense to build an app without already having a mobile website in place.
Clearly, any-size business can benefit – either through increased sales or improved business efficiencies, or both – by introducing a mobile app. However, establishing a sound, well-thought out strategy at the start of your project will save time and money. It may even protect and grow your brand if done right.