We are in the midst of a revolution, and like most midsts of most revolutions, it’s really messy and unsettled. It’s crazy times.
Should you support the Mobile Web party, the party of freedom and interoperability and keeping-things-simple? Or the Native App party, the party of walled gardens and specific platforms and easy monetization? The answer is: You can support both at the same time. Compromise!
Platforms and Dependencies
The web is platform-independent. Well, more accurately, it’s supported by lots of different platforms who are all converging on a set of standards that means you don’t have to change things too much. This means you can make your application once, and run it most places, with maybe some tweaks here and there to match specific circumstances.
Native apps, in contrast, are platform-specific. In one sense, this can be handy, because if the platform is constrained enough, like say iOS on an iPhone, you can make your app pixel perfect for the device. Of course, the unhandiness creeps in immediately, because if you want to market your app to people who don’t use iPhones, you’ll have to port the app, and then do a whole new set of pixel perfect optimizations.
There’s another, and pretty significant, upside to focusing on the web: a mobile app can’t replace your website for all of your desktop users, because of that platform-dependence thing. This means that you’ll need to maintain two or more different products, sometimes for the same sets of users. A well-designed website is both mobile- and desktop-centered, eliminating the need to have multiple development streams.
Native apps are often perceived to be faster, especially in some absolute, abstract sense. This isn’t necessarily true: most apps don’t need fancy graphics and so can’t be slowed down by complicated animations; and anyway those fancy animations depend more on the browser than some absolute limit.
If there’s one thing that native apps do better than mobile web, it’s being available when there’s no network. Or rather, it’s being known to be available when there’s no network. It’s actually not that hard to save websites for offline use on a mobile device. This doesn’t mean that all people know how to do it.
There’s a more pressing issue related to this, though: browsers can limit how much of a website is stored for offline use. If you have a real need to let users store large amounts of data on their mobile devices for offline use, it may be reasonable to pursue a native app.
Discovery and Monetization
Native apps seem easier to discover, from the perspective of using a distributor storefront like the Apple App Store, and easier to charge for, from that same perspective. But a mobile web app can be found through any browser, and it’s not as hard as you might think to charge for access.
All Together Now
I might seem pretty hard on native apps, but I’ll say it: native apps have their uses, and they might even be a good choice for your application. Even better: there’s all sorts of development that makes it possible to put your website, which will be mobile web ready, of course, into a little piece of native app, to get the best of both worlds, and to capture all sorts of customers, no matter what their preferences. Now doesn’t that sound like a win-win?