Too many companies are asking “What’s my app?” instead of “What’s my strategy?” That’s led to some curious decision making in what’s become a mobile app gold rush and could come back to haunt brands and publishers alike.
Mobile is constantly changing as the technology expands. Fragmentation continues to grow within each platform and especially between the platforms, leaving many to question which path is the best for their company. The answer at this point invariably is a mobile app available in Apple’s iTunes store, feeding a $2 billion business in 2010. There are now armies of developers specializing in building native apps, sometimes even if it’s not the right answer for a client. . But many brands and publishers arrive at that answer without asking the right questions.
“The people who really got rich in the Gold Rush weren’t the prospectors, but the people who sold them the tools,” said Darrell Whitelaw, partner of mobile strategy and development shop Mir. “Application development is a very profitable business, like any other profitable business people want to keep it around.”
Here’s the thing: apps were never meant to be a long-term play. They were born out of the limitations of mobile platforms. When the iPhone first launched, before the mobile version of the Safari browser took full advantage of HTML5 and a year before the Apple App Store launched, web apps reigned supreme. But they had limited functionality and were often confused with mobile-optimized websites. This experience is the taste that web apps have so recently left in everyone’s mouth over two years later. The truth is, besides a few features, HTML5 web apps can give native apps a run for their money. Still, in the consumer mind, a rich mobile experience is synonymous with an app downloaded from iTunes, not a web app.There’s no question that, at a minimum, your brand website needs to be optimized for mobile. There’s nothing more frustrating to a mobile consumer than finding an unusable site on mobile. This can be fixed as simply as reformatting the site with CSS, but always make sure that the same content is accessible in both places. A mobile-optimized website in many instances can do much more than an app. When your goal is information about your brand and not a reference tool, utility, or a game, you don’t need an app. Whether native or web, an app should be something with staying power.
With the current state of the Android and other app stores, web apps could absolutely give those platforms stiff competition. There are many advantages to this approach. You only have to develop a web app once, with minor adjustments per platform which greatly lowers your development cost. There’s also no submission and approval process, so any update you make can go live instantly. Depending on what you want your app to do, where your target audience is, and your budget, a web app may be the perfect solution for you. 37signal’s Basecamp went web app over native app, for example.
Going the web app route is not without its drawbacks, however. Say you develop a web app. Good luck getting it onto people’s phones. You’re pretty much on your own. IMockups, an iPhone app developed by Endloop, sold between 100 and 350 sales of their $9.99 app per day through its own efforts of increasing the visibility of their app, but the highest spikes in their daily sales, ranging from 450 to 850 sales per day, were all a result of Apple’s marketing. In their graph, you can see the exposure received on launch day and then again when they were featured for two weeks. The fact is the Apple iTunes store is a powerful distribution source.
“I don’t see people abandoning native apps completely for a lot of different reasons in the near term, but I definitely think there will be a bigger push toward mobile web and a push to a bigger strategy between mobile and native apps,” said André Charland, president of Nitobi, which makes PhoneGap, an open-source product that allows publishers to build an HTML5 app and distribute it as a native app to all the major platforms.
Nike is taking such a hybrid strategy. When viewing its website on your mobile device, you have a perfectly tailored experience that allows you to dig through everything Nike. Nike offers their fair share of apps as well. Searching the iTunes App Store provides you with eight different apps, seven of which could not exist in any form other than a native app because they take advantage special features of the phone, like the iPhone’s accelerometer. Apps like Nike+ GPS take advantage of device specific hardware, while Nike BOOM and Nike Football+ utilize your iPod library and allow you to capture and upload video. In those cases, it’s hard to dispute that going native wasn’t the right choice.
The most important step to a mobile strategy is also often overlooked: making a site mobile compatible. “More and more consumers have smartphones. More and more of them are typing a brands URL into their browsers,” said a Rich Ting, executive creative director in R/GA’s mobile and emerging platforms group. “The consumer should see a mobile-optimized version of the brand’s website in their browser.”
Finding the right mobile strategy isn’t an easy task. The platforms and tech tools are new and relatively unproven. Every week seems to bring new shifts. The current vogue for iPhone apps could easily shift back to Web apps or simply HTML5 sites readable across many platforms. If someone comes selling a silver bullet answer to a brand or publisher’s mobile strategy, buyer beware.