Apps vs. Mobile Web: Where to Develop Could Be a Function of 'When'

Rewind to the year 2000. Virtually every TV ad featured both a URL and an AOL keyword. “Visit us online at weather.com or AOL KW: Weather.” The pundits said the AOL walled garden would come down. They were right. Will native apps suffer the same fate?

The AOL content world came into place because at the time the typical Web site experience was horrible. The content was lame, many Web sites looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, and they took forever to load. The Internet was commonly called the World Wide Wait. All those problems sound familiar? Just change the date to 2010, add the word mobile, and here we are.

AOL’s breakthrough was to make interactivity accessible to the average user. It did this by creating a walled garden of largely curated content, running on its own proprietary platform, Rainman. Rainman took content and allowed it to be downloaded one time, saved on your computer and have processes run locally instead of through your Internet connection. Much like native apps do today.

As bandwidth expanded, the value of the AOL’s Rainman decreased, and eventually was completely wiped out by the scale of the standards-based HTML approach.

Today, we are at a similar juncture. Native apps still offer a meaningful advantage over Web apps, but the difference will continue to shrink as bandwidth improves and the OS/carriers open up more functionality to Web-based programs.

Using the iPhone as an example, here’s a summary of key functionality you can only access using a native app today:

– Accelerometer
– Camera
– Record audio/video
– Push/Local Notifications
– Immersive Games (open GL)
– Calendar access (iOS 4)
– Background processing
– iAd

In addition, a native app (again using iPhone) offers:

– Distribution on App Store — this currently can have marketing value, similar to getting distributed on AOL did
– Curated software — this is especially important for new brands/products — it gives users comfort that the application is “legit.”
– Speed/performance for quick content “ easier to store certain content elements, such as splash pages, on the phone

The significant disadvantage of native apps is cost — with a Web app, you can hit most smartphones with one project. With native apps, you will have to publish three times and soon four times (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile 7) to hit 95%+ coverage.

Burger King is a great example of what you can do with a Web app. Type in “bk.com” on your computer, and then type it into a WebKit-based smartphone browser (such as iPhone or Android) — completely different experiences, each optimized for its environment. Users are coming to expect a mobile optimized/Web app experience when they hit a URL from a mobile phone. This is a big deal — 12 months ago a user would expect to get the same Web site when typing in a URL on a computer or mobile device.

So where do we end up on the native vs. Web app debate? It’s all in the timing. Given the rampant growth in mobile traffic, a mobile-optimized site or Web app is a baseline for virtually every Web site. But for now, given the advantages that native apps still offer, most companies will also reap meaningful benefits from a native app strategy, at least on the leading platforms.

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Tobias Dengel is CEO of WillowTree Apps Inc., a mobile applications developer. He is also BIA/Kelsey’s new technical editor and will be posting regularly on mobile-related topics. The views he expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of BIA/Kelsey.

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