Smartphone apps are still going strong, but they're not the only way to get rich information across to users – or even the best way.
The other approach to getting information to a mobile audience isn't as flashy, or as capable of so many technological feats – but it is faster, cheaper, simpler, and much easier to get into users' hands: the web application.
Smartphone, or native, apps – the kind you buy through the app store and download on your smartphone – are programs that have to be written specifically for every different kind of mobile device: Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, and so on.
Web applications, on the other hand, are essentially websites (the term is vaguely defined, but the emphasis is often more on "Web" than "application"), and are accessed through a Web browser.
But web apps aren't plain-Jane websites: Typically, they employ leading-edge, Web-building techniques to make them behave more interactively, like applications, while still running in a browser.
They're frequently customized for mobile use, sometimes even tailored for specific types of mobile devices, like Android phones or Apple's iOS devices, which encompass its iPod-iPhone-iPad triumvirate.
Native apps and Web apps don't need to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, a company might pursue both, since they solve different problems. But a company looking to invest in the mobile space will want to think carefully about where to go first.
What kind of Web apps are there? There are a few broad categories of mobile Web applications that are worth distinguishing:
Generic mobile web apps
These are Web applications that take the content of a website and format it for smaller screens and touch interfaces in general. They are tailored to mobile devices, but will look the same no matter what kind of mobile device they're seen on.
Device-specific mobile web apps
These detect the kind of device that the user is accessing the page through, and can deliver a customized experience. For instance, a publication's website might recognize that the reader is using an iPad, and produce a page built for the iPad's screen size and interface, rather than showing the regular website.
These are actually applications that need to be downloaded through an app store, but which contain information that's pulled from the Web. They trade off the disadvantages of being distributed through app stores with the benefit of getting access to device-specific features, like the phone's camera and GPS.
The argument against native apps
There are a few good reasons a business might want to stay away from native apps.
First, while they can do all kinds of whiz-bang tricks (Geolocation! Photo editing! Create a movie in the palm of your hand!), they're not so good at the basics of getting information across to a curious consumer.
Since they have to be downloaded and installed from an app store (the iTunes Store for Apple products, and the Android App Marketplace for Android devices), the information they contain isn't readily available on Google. This makes them well-suited for regular customers, but a lousy way to expose Web searchers to new information.
Second, app stores bring other complications. One is approval: Apple is notoriously mercurial about its approvals process, and has rules that govern what can and cannot be displayed and sold in its apps. Another is expectations: Installing an app is a runaround. If a user has gone to the effort, the app needs to deliver more than text on a page.
Third, apps are expensive. Even though development costs are dropping, apps are still more complicated to produce, and require more specialized skills. This is all the more true if you're talking about software that will take full advantage of an app's ability to be innovative and interactive, as opposed to simply displaying information.
The case for Web apps
Web apps will never fully match the capabilities of installed applications; for the foreseeable future, they will continue to resemble souped-up websites.
But for many practical business applications, this is more than enough. If the goal is to reach customers with timely information about products, services, availability, locations and hours, and give them the chance to book, reserve or purchase, you'll want to make sure you catch them as they're searching. By the time they're in the mood to install an app, that moment is all but guaranteed to be gone.
Web applications are more than geared to these tasks. Even complicated websites like Hotwire.com cater to mobile users with a stripped-down interface that does almost everything they need, but faster and easier.
But even if the goal is to provide a richer graphical experience – something that native apps specialize in – don't count out the open Web. Outlets like newspapers and photo-sharing sites are using the latest Web tools to create websites that look more like apps. In the next few weeks, we'll take a look at how.
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