My marketing colleagues and I have been talking about mobile apps here and there for the past year. As more of our customers and partners get smart phones and iPads they are asking for apps designed specifically for those platforms. If that wasn’t reason enough to consider adding mobile apps to our online efforts, the statistical predictions indicate mobile web use will continue to grow at a phenomenal rate. A recent Mashable article cites a Morgan Stanley report which predicts mobile browsing will eclipse desktop browsing by 2015. That’s just five years from now.
While I think it’s a great idea to get on this bandwagon now, I’m not so sure about putting a lot of effort into platform-specific applications. Even though the iPhone is the current market leader, does it make sense to develop an application which only runs on that device? From what I read, Android devices are coming up fast. And who knows what will happen with Windows phones, Blackberries and such. For many businesses, it doesn’t make sense from a cost perspective to put a lot of effort into creating applications which only work on one device.
This reminds me of the debate I used to hear about coding web pages so they would work properly on a Mac or in a browser other than Internet Explorer: Why would you purposely alienate a potentially large percentage of your audience because you choose not to take their browser or operating system quirks into account? I think a similar question holds here, only it relates to smart phone browser or operating systems quirks.
Enter The Web App
In my mind, a cross-platform application makes a lot more sense. And what could be more cross-platform than a web-based app which runs in a mobile web browser? While there are still design challenges involved in dealing with the various mobile browsers, the application code remains the same. What works on the iPhone will, in all likelihood, work on an Android or Windows phone, too. While it is true that platform-specific apps have more potential for “bells and whistles,” a mobile web browser app can look good and be extremely useful.
Here are some advantages of mobile web apps over platform-specific ones:
- Cross-platform compatibility
- Web browser apps are easier to deploy, update and maintain.
- Because web browser apps predominately run on a central web server, there are no distribution issues like trying to get into the iPhone app store.
- Instead of having to train someone to code for a specific platform or outsource development, companies can use the in-house expertise they already have.
- If a framework such as .NET is used for web development, the same code that powers current web applications can be reused for the back end processes of a mobile browser application. This will cut development time and cost.
I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. While discussing the release of their iPhone app, the Jason’s Deli tweeter indicated they are going to follow up with a mobile browser-based app. The reason: it works on any phone.
What about you? What do you think about mobile web apps? Do you lean towards browser-based or platform-specific apps? Let us know in the comments.