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07.11.13

The Great Mobile App Debate: Native or Web App?

At the recent SSP Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I participated in a session with three other panelists where we discussed the merits of native apps and web apps. The goal of the session was to educate the audience that both native apps and web apps, specifically HTML5 web apps, can have a place in any publisher's mobile strategy and the decision about what technology is right for your product rests in the purpose of the mobile app.

Native vs Web Apps

In order to ensure that the audience was grounded on the technologies, acronyms, and other techno speak that might come from the presenters, I opened the session with a introduction to the current and evolving mobile app technologies available today. Download a copy of the PowerPoint presentation and speaker notes for more information.

Each panelist presented a case study about their experience with developing either a native app or web app, the factors that influenced their decision, the goals of their mobile app product, their challenges and successes to date, reflections on their decision, and thoughts for the future.

The format of the session was ultimately effective and educational for the audience but in hindsight it may have been more entertaining and valuable for the audience to witness an Oxford style debate about which of the mobile app technologies will reign supreme.

As both a provider of native mobile apps and as a technology strategist, I can see the value in both mobile app technologies but given the opportunity to debate the merit of native apps I would present the following arguments:

  1. HTML5 isn't only for web apps. Supporters of web apps often portrait that web apps and HTML5 are synonymous with one another, but there are plenty of web apps available today that are simply HTML and nothing more than a cleverly designed mobile optimized website that attempts to simulate the experience of a native app.

    HTML5 is just the next version of the HTML standard, and while it does offer a number of compelling capabilities, those capabilities are not restricted to web apps. All apps, including native apps like those developed by Sheridan, can and will take advantage of HTML5.

  2. Don't underestimate the value of the App Store. Having a clear and well known channel for selling and distributing your mobile app is critical. People won't download and use your app if they can't find it. Discoverability is the key to success and mobile users have become accustomed to getting apps through the App Stores, whether Android's Google Play or Apple's iTunes or some other variant. While creating a shortcut or bookmark to a web app and adding it to your home screen on your mobile device is easy, its not intuitive to many mobile users.

    In preparation for the session, I spent time with each of the other panelist's web apps to better understand their features and capabilities. Impressed, I sent an instant message to a colleague and friend in our organization, who is a senior technologist and well experienced in the mobile app space, to check out one of the web apps. His response, "I can't find it on the iTunes App Store?"

    What's an app without a store to sell it in? While I strongly feel that HTML5 is changing and will continue to change the landscape of mobile technology for the next 5 years, we cannot underestimate the value of the App Store. Whether Google Play or the iTunes App Store, native apps have a clear and simple purchase channel. While most web apps today are essentially web sites that the user has to create a shortcut to on their home screen, it's not intuitive for mobile users who are accustomed to the app stores. While easy to do, it is a small barrier to overcome, mobile users are impatient and a bit more finicky than desktop users. Small barriers are barriers nonetheless and uptake of a web app can be slowed by less discoverability. Although online retail stores have been effective in turning websites into their virtual storefronts, web apps have yet to do the same thing. Users expect to get an app from an App Store, if not THE App Store for their specific device.

  3. Apple isn't going to sit on its hands. Apple makes billions of dollars each year from the sale of native apps. Do you think for a moment that they won't continue to enhance the iOS to provide features and capabilities that simply cannot be done with a web app? They have a very big stake in the mobile app game, and feature like push notification in the current iOS and background updating of content in the Newsstand currently and all apps in iOS 7, are capabilities that web apps, even HTML5 web apps cannot match.

Native Apps

Maybe next year, when the HTML5 specification is finalized, there will be an opportunity for a session at SSP that will let proponents of both technologies square off in a no holds barred grudge match to debate the winner. But for now, if you're interested in learning more about how a native app can serve your needs, contact me or your Sheridan sales representative.

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