Business Strategy

Going mobile: Should you develop a mobile app or mobile website?

September 22, 2014

  • Alex Bratton
iBusiness issue 22

This article appeared in i.Business Magazine, Issue 22 from August 2014. i.Business Magazine is an Apple B2B and enterprise publication that focuses on solutions-based approaches to productivity and workflow management. 

When it comes to a mobile presence, companies are faced with a big choice: should their approach to mobile include a mobile (native) app or a mobile website, or both.

Native apps are the applications downloaded onto your phone or tablet from an app store; while mobile websites built using HTML5 are reached via an Internet browser and optimized for mobile devices.

Native app usage on smartphones is outpacing mobile website usage, according to a study by app analytics provider Flurry. The study shows that users in March 2014 spent 2 hours, 19 minutes per day on mobile apps. That represents 88 percent of all smartphone usage. Meanwhile, mobile web usage dropped to just 22 minutes per day. Clearly, users are familiar with and prefer apps.

Companies opt to invest in native apps because the user interfaces that are highly responsive and easy to use. Good native apps streamline and improve existing business workflows, enabling companies to save time, reduce cost and increase revenue. The apps often take the place of paper-based or manual processes. Native apps also are preferred by businesses needing secure data transactions, such as banks and other financial services companies, and those needing to access the core functions of the mobile device. This includes apps that tap into the device’s camera, maps, GPS and other functions. Since native apps can function without an Internet connection, they are a good choice if connectivity is questionable.

Companies choose mobile websites when they want to give users access to content for marketing purposes, or to provide access to reporting systems that have responsive back end systems. Mobile websites also are useful for companies that need to be found by users searching the web on mobile devices. In this case, mobile users are automatically directed to a mobile version of the website.

Some companies opt for a hybrid approach: using a mobile website to take advantage of web searches, then prompting customers to download their mobile app.

The correct choice lies in the needs of the user. If the user is expecting interactivity and a high degree of functionality, a native app is probably best. If your business simply needs an affordable way to be discovered by mobile search engines, a mobile website may fit the bill.

To understand which is most suitable for your business, ask these five questions:

1. What kind of a user experience is expected? If your users demand a streamlined interface that quickly serves up the information they need with a few taps, a native app will be quicker and more intuitive.

2. Does the app need to access other core functions of the smartphone? If your app needs to seamlessly tap into the functions and features of mobile devices–the device’s camera, calendar, address book, GPS, maps or photo library–a mobile app is the best way to go. Users will feel like the app belongs on the phone. HTML5 is advancing in this area, but is not close to the experience users expect yet.

3. Will the app need to receive notifications to perform an action or task? Notifications are alerts and other messages apps display on the mobile device. They are used to remind users to do something or to alert them if a message is waiting. Native apps can deliver notifications seamlessly, while mobile web can’t.

4. Will the app be used in areas with good connectivity? If the app will be used in areas with good connectivity, a web app may fit the bill. However, if the app may be used in areas with limited, slow or no connectivity, consider going native. Native apps can function fully offline and then sync up data behind the scenes when connectivity is available again. HTML5 does offer limited offline storage and other capabilities, but not as robust as native apps.

5. Will your app control external devices? If you plan to use mobile devices to interface with and control equipment, such as automating a manufacturing process, a native app will work best. Native apps can connect directly to a device using Wifi, other network connections, Bluetooth or even through a serial or USB cable. A web app will rely on the Internet connection.

To help understand where your organization’s needs fall, you can always download NativeVsWeb, an app that helps you determine whether your app concept should be built as a native or web app. It is available free in the Apple App Store.