Will apps remain leaders of the mobile market, or will they be replaced by the mobile web? This question is nowadays producing one of the most heated discussions among mobile developers.
Last week, Fred Wilson encouraged readers of his blog to discuss this topic. I was going to comment on the post, but I realized that it’d be possible to expand it into a blog post. There is no consensus about this topic, and I’m not giving a definitive solution. Instead, I’ll point out some characteristics of each of these technologies and leave the conclusion to the reader. In fact, I believe that the optimal solution depends on the product. As pretty much anything else, the mobile web has positive and negative elements.
Fast, seamless updates
Websites usually can be updated by simply uploading new files to the server. However, if you need to update an app, it needs to be submitted for review again. For instance, this often takes 1-2 weeks in Apple’s App Store. In fact, some updates get rejected and it’s necessary to resubmit the app for review. By removing the need for external review, you can push updates much faster. When a product is still under development, this perk is especially helpful.
If there’s a bug on your product, the update delay of an app review might cause you to lose users and get bad reviews. Also, I personally hate when apps ask to be updated frequently. However, web products don’t need this.
(Theoretical) reduction of development costs and time
If you want your app to be available for different devices (thus expanding the potential market), you’ll need to create multiple versions of the product. However, websites are accessible by any modern phone with internet access. By reducing the need for multiple versions, development costs and time would be reduced significantly.
I know this point is debatable, since mobile browsers aren’t equal. The website will probably be rendered differently in each device. This may be acceptable in may cases, but in some this must be avoided.
No guidelines (almost)
Apps need to conform with the App Store’s guidelines. However, if your product is on the web, it won’t be reviewed, so there are no guidelines (as long as the product is legal, of course).
Apps can access the phone’s accelerometer, contacts, dialing, etc. However, websites don’t have access to these features. Thus, if they are required for your product, mobile web is a no-no for you.
Apps will have a lot of information stored on the phone, so they’ll usually run much faster than a website. Where mobile internet connections are notoriously slow, e.g. in developing countries, this might make your product unusable. If your product takes minutes to load, the user will probably give up before he or she starts using it.
When a user downloads an app, his phone will automatically add an icon to the home screen. However, this does not happen with websites, which are thus more likely to be forgotten. It’s possible to bookmark the pages, but there’s no guarantee that users will do it (and it adds complexity to the process). Therefore, apps will probably have a much higher user retention rate than websites.
Users are getting used to download apps, but they aren’t to the mobile web. If your target audience is tech-friendly, this is no problem. However, if you are dealing with people who aren’t inclined to adopt new technologies, this might increase the difficulty in getting users.
App store promotion
When an app becomes featured on the App Store, thousands of users will download it for this reason. Although this is rare, it has helped some obscure apps to become well-known. For now, there is no replacement (that is popular enough) for this, so you might lose some promotion (if you were lucky enough to be featured).
I believe there is no definitive solution. This will depend on the needs of the product. However, an interesting approach would be mixing these technologies. For instance, you could create an app that loads most of its content from the web. In this way, you’d get the benefits of fast, seamless updates of a website, while maintaining some functions of an app, such as app store promotion and accessibility. In fact, development costs and time would be relatively low, since part of the product will be compatible with multiple devices.
Developers should consider these points before choosing a platform. Depending on the product, certain platforms will be more beneficial. There isn’t only one general optimal solution.
Picture credit to Ricky Romero, licensed under the CC terms.