As mobile becomes an increasingly important channel for online consumers and brands, selecting the right approach to developing and deploying mobile applications is an increasingly critical consideration. Many have debated the pros and cons of native versus Web apps.
For those who are unfamiliar with this space, mobile Web apps are applications accessed via the Web browser on your smartphone, tablet or other mobile device. This contrasts with native mobile apps, which are designed specifically for a particular mobile hardware platform or OS.
Currently, most marketers and developers agree that a native app approach to managing the mobile marketing matrix can be costly and time consuming, given the proliferation of devices and platforms that need to be addressed.
At the same time, a significant perception gap still exists regarding the functionality and user experience of Web apps. Unlike a standard Web experience, true mobile Web apps are designed to have the look and feel of a native app purchased from a store such as Apple’s iTunes and can deliver nearly all the functionality a marketer would desire.
What can Web apps do?
Using HTML5, Java and some Web content management tools, Web app developers can now incorporate a range of sophisticated features that were previously available only to native apps:
- Offline mode: Enables users to browse data in offline mode, such as maps and bus schedules without mobile connectively. This is beneficial for areas where mobile service can be spotty.
- Ecommerce: Native apps are well known for processing payments – Groupon is the first that comes to mind – but more recently the PizzaExpress app – but you can actually make the same kinds of purchases via Web apps.
- Photos and video: Android devices can take photos and video in a Web app just like you can with a native app. This functionality is currently being developed for the iPhone as well. Because of HTML5 and open standards, video is better managed with Web apps, as they do not require third party applications that negatively affect performance. These functions could be very useful for social marketing campaigns that encourage users to upload images or video.
- Augmented reality: The camera in your smartphone can do a lot more than just take pictures. The frontier of augmented reality, which allows you to layer interactive, geo-specific data on top of a real-time image of your immediate surroundings, is just starting to be explored, but there are a few native apps out there that incorporate this function well.
How to build and manage Web apps
Perhaps the most significant advantage of mobile Web apps is that they can be dynamically developed, managed and deployed by Web content management (WCM) systems. WCM allows companies to build a single Web app and deliver it to all platforms, rather than painstakingly develop a separate native application for every mobile platform or device.
Sophisticated WCM systems can detect which device a user has and automatically build a unique experience that is perfectly adapted to the capabilities and characteristics of their specific mobile hardware without requiring the frequent updates demanded by native apps. Application managers and content editors can also use preview functions of the WCM platform to view what the experience will look like for all users before it goes live.
While the development and management aspects of Web apps certainly are appealing, how are the user experiences? Today’s users have grown to expect both highly functional and personalized experiences across every touchpoint. When users access content from a mobile device, they usually expect (and in many cases require) a very different experience than they would expect from a website on a desktop PC, or even a laptop. Mobile users are more likely to demand an experience that is adapted to their location, time of day, or even social media relationships.
While native apps can provide a personal experience to some extent, they cannot provide the type of on-demand contextual experiences that users want. Only context-aware content management systems can aggregate information from multiple platforms and repositories (including user profiles from CRM systems, GPS information, device parameter, time of day/year, social media “likes” or tweets, etc.) to build a unique Web app experience that is always personal, relevant, useful and convenient on any touchpoint.
Armed with a sophisticated WCM system, with context-based computing, developers could provide users with a unique experience across all touchpoints and ensure that the content and features on the app are always up to date and relevant. For a travel app this would enable immediate needs to be met and also to direct to the nearest station, advise about delays and even offer alternative routes.
What functions are ‘native’ to native apps?
While Web apps have more functionality than most people know, there are still a few functions that are only available to native apps:
- Gyroscope: Developers would not be able to use the gyroscope or motion sensor that is embedded in smartphones like the iPhone. The gyroscope can sense movement and tilt, which is used mostly in games.
- Bluetooth: Web apps cannot access this function today – only native apps can.
- Graphics: Although HTML5 is making huge strides here, hard core gamers – for example – are going to be more satisfied with the graphics offered by native app developers at this time.
Are any of these functions in high demand by most users? I would argue not by the user base of most companies looking to develop Web apps. However, these features are currently being developed for Web apps, and you can expect to see them sometime in the future.
The future is Web apps
Now that Web apps can match almost every feature of native apps, and can even surpass them in terms of providing a more immersive, context-based Web experience for their users, the user experience gap has almost closed.
Also considering their inherent business benefits, Web apps are positioned for large growth and user proliferation in 2011, with analysts predicting a market for Web app development platforms at around $2.6B by 2015. Add in the cost savings, management capabilities and context-based experiences that WCM systems bring to the table, and it might be time to hop on the Web app bandwagon and say “so long” to Apple and their native friends.