Mobile: Web vs. Native (again)

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Mobile: Web vs. Native (again)

The age-old debate rages on. Which is better, native or responsive web in mobile development? Read on to find out, and see how scalability and discoverability play a part.

· Mobile Zone ·
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It seems like by now, pretty much everyone has weighed in on the native vs web conversation for mobile development, and being as I haven't yet, I thought why not? The age-old question being, should you make a native mobile app or just go with a standard responsive website? (or just use some common technology to wrap up your mobile website in an app).

The reason that I started thinking about this again was because an article as circulated at work, which seemed to be saying that you should do both native and web, as they have different strategic values - which, whilst I largely disagree with that, I think the underlying point being made was that there are different reasons for going down either path.

A Quick Caveat:

I will get this out the way up front - I'm not talking about any scenarios where you are in a very mobile-centric business - so if you want to make use of phone hardware like camera etc, or you are specifically a mobile-first type app, or one that is intrinsically linked with the mobile as an identity, then yes. Native is the only option.  This discussion is more for normal existing businesses that might (or not) already have a website and is at the point of inflection of whether to  build a native app or not11.


So, Native or Responsive Web?

My general rule of thumb is as follows: Don't go native.

You would be right in thinking that's a fairly sweeping rule. But I think probably fair - and whys that? I think there are two primary concerns that make the cost and effort of building a native app not worthwhile:

1. Discoverability

The web is a great place for discovering things - just the word "web" portrays it quite nicely, from any given point there are undoubtedly loads of little threads(I'm talking links) that could be followed at no real cost - assuming it's not a dodgy looking link, the barrier to prevent someone following a link is practically non-existent - So you read a nice featured article about a new company/product on a blog, at the end of the article they link to their site, you click it. I mean, why not right? if it ends up looking crappy the back button saves you and what have you lost? a few seconds? Easy. 

This is something that is clearly missing in the mobile app eco-system - assuming you aren't some behemoth of a company that millions of people want (or need) to interact with, a mobile app isn't going to help increase your customer base. Sure it might give you a richer experience for the handful (I'm talking about web scale here) of customers - but it's not going to help grow customers, it will cost you time and money to produce/maintain and that's before you start having to work on directing existing customers to your mobile app:

"Would you like to install our free app?!?" is the new "It looks like you're writing a letter!"— Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror)  January 9, 2013

So again, if you are a bank, who has millions of customers who have specific, regular needs to transact with you, or if you are a hot new social-local-sharing company then sure, go for that enhanced UX.  But an app is only going to be any good if the users already have the intent to transact with you. If a user is browsing the web on a mobile, your conversion rate is going to be a lot higher with a link through to a responsive website than to an app download.

2. Scalability

For me, this is the deal breaker. I'm not talking technical scalability - will your servers be able to withstand the undoubted, soon to be approaching, mass of people who will rush out and download your app as soon as its released (see my previous point), I'm talking customer-to-app scalability.

Imagine your a regular business - you have thousands of happy customers, maybe your website even gets tens or hundreds of thousands of uniques a day - so let's build an app right?

The problem is, there is a limit to how many apps that a user will have on their phone - on a standard android phone you will likely have two screens worth of app icons when you un-box it, so there is a limit to how many more apps they will install - Again, this is how it is not like the web: visiting a website is free, but there is a much greater barrier to installing and keeping an app (let alone using it) - and when the phone is getting full, or sluggish, or the user wants a bit more space to download a show from BBC iPlayer, then the apps that aren't regularly used are going to get the chop.

When you are competing with limited resources and the big players - Facebook, messaging, banks, geo-based stuff (maps, uber etc) - then it's hard to make a compelling case for the phone user to keep or even install the app.  This demand makes it even harder to convert your loyal web customers to mobile - and weighed up against the fact that you could make an awesome(and consistent) responsive web experience, the choice looks clearer for me.

Benedict Evans says you should build an app if people are going to put your app on their home screen, which seems like pretty sound advice - and given the size of a phone home screen, this makes for fairly few companies.

Final Caveat:

If you are building the app because it came out of a side-project organically, or a hackathon or something similar, then by all means - there's lots of fun to be had and lessons to be learnt in building, testing and launching a mobile app - so if you don't mind the potential cost then definitely go for it!

mobile, native app development, web

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