Browser based mobile apps versus native apps. It’s a serious debate about as old as three years. And pretty much since the beginning of that debate, there has been a general underlying current among the Internet community that browser based is good and native is bad. But Native is dominating despite the serious disadvantages, and browser based applications need to do a catch up.
Clearly, organizations are realizing the growing importance of the mobile Web channel as a way to build brand awareness and customer loyalty, yet many are unaware that there are new, innovative approaches to the native mobile app which leverage the browser and make it considerably easier to engage consumers across the exponential number of mobile devices war.
Mobile applications are nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of productivity, gaming, utility and entertainment apps abound in stores such as Apple’s iTunes or Salesforce.com’s AppExchange, available for free but mostly paying applications, through a variety of models. Apps redefined usability and interaction on mobile phones — especially touchscreen devices, and nowadays, tablets. But the native way comes at a price: serious development costs plus maintenance and distribution costs . Not to speak of the dependence on app stores and the continual install and update cycle. So for commercial mobile apps the disadvantages might be offset by the business model, for informational mobile apps, that come essentially free, the disadvantages are pay cash.
One of the pre-requisites with this native approach is the extensive infrastructure that is required for basic distribution and maintenance updates. And beyond the distribution infrastructure, organizations need to create customized versions of the app for each of the mobile platforms on which it will run (Android, Mac O/S, RIM, Windows Mobile, Symbian etc.), which in turn also requires individual updates for end-users to install and refresh. For commercial apps not a big hurdle to take, for informational apps and for businesses with a limited amount of resources to deploy, not an obvious choice.
Native has its advantages; the apps works off line, particularly interesting for games and native apps can benefit from the proprietary features of the native platform – on the Iphone apps you can benefit from the tilt angle or the motion of device, provided of course your apps need that capability. For media and entertainment, native apps can be an extra revenue stream as the apps can incur a new recurring revenue stream. But for most companies the apps will be given Free so that extra incentive to build native apps will not be available.
The technical and financial barriers to overcome in the native apps approach are for most companies and their marketing staff to high to take. They need to look for an alternative way to enter the mobile web market and the mobile devices market. Small to medium size organizations are still struggling getting a third generation webpresence going, let alone that they could deal now with three to four different content management, distribution and maintenance platforms.
The most obvious advantages for the apps provider are the ability to leverage it's existing investment in a web site or a content management system in to the mobile platform. No need to create new content, no new distribution platform, no hardware and software investments, just an optimization of the design and content for a solid mobile experience.
Other big advantage is that the approach is technology agnostic, and that with a browser based mobile apps you are covering the entire mobile devices and tablet market, independent of manufacturer and underlying operating systems used. iOS covers about 38% of the mobile market, and as such that is an extra-ordinary figure, but it leaves 62% to the others. Building a native apps on Apple so gives you a coverage of 38% of the market, building a browser based mobile apps gives you a 100% coverage and you do not need to worry what percentage of your customers will be covered by creating a native Apple apps.
Third and probably biggest advantage for a small to medium sized business, is the fact that your update and maintenance cost will be shared with the cost of updating and maintaining your main site. So one investment cost for both the main site and the mobile site, one URL or domain, and one cost for updating and maintaining both platforms.
For users, they don’t have to download an application or any maintenance updates, but instead “call up” a URL via their mobile browser which instantly delivers the most up-to-date application to their device. The URL can then be bookmarked like a local app on their device's desktop for the repeat user. In cases where users just want a one-off interaction with an app, they receive immediate access without a download, while organizations capitalize on a one-time opportunity to excite their audience.
It used to be very hard to simulate the Call, Mail and Map button standard in native iOS apps. It's not any more. All current versions of mobile browsers, be it Apple, Android or Windows are supported fixed position button bar. That allows any mobile web apps to behave in the exact same way as a native apps. And if you are offline or out of coverage, important data is cached in such a way that it can be viewed as if it were a native app.