In order to help decide what is right for you, let’s have a look at the main differences between an app and a mobile site.
Feature wise, apps have certain advantages over mobile sites. If you want to make use of the device’s hardware like the camera (to scan a barcode) or integrate with the address book, you need an app. An app can also take full advantage of the device’s processing power if you require more advanced graphics capabilities beyond the limits of what can be achieved with HTML. Another app advantage is the option to remain logged in after first use. When a user hasn’t visited your mobile site for a while, it might be hard to find a way to encourage them to reengage. With an app, you can send push notifications to remind them you’re still there and that you have something great to offer. Push information, when targeted, can be extremely effective. With Apple’s upcoming iOS 6 operating system, location-based targeting through apps will be simplified as well so you can push out a message when someone is near your store.
Native apps are typically ultra-fast when it comes to load times. Most apps are very intuitive as Apple (iOS) and Android provide default libraries making it easy for app builders to follow specific User Experience conventions. Although this might be constraining for novice developers, it does mean that most app users will find navigating through your app easy.
As an app can store more data offline, it’s the preferred interface for heavier content and can continue to operate when no network connection is present, albeit with potentially reduced functionality.
Time to market
A mobile site can be launched faster than an app, as it doesn’t need to pass through the app approval process. Mobile sites can be updated and enhanced in real-time while native applications require the developer to gain approval, and for users to download
an update each time a change is made.
Mobile sites are accessible on any type of smartphone and give you the best possible reach. They are also easier to integrate with the general web ecosystem where site links as well as Search Engine Marketing and Optimisation play an important role in site traffic. Apps with positive user reviews have the advantage of being prominently featured in the Apple or Google app store. For apps, it’s best to build both an iOS and Android version. However, because of the popularity of iPhones in Australia, building for iOS alone will bring you a long way. According to Statcounter.com, in May 72 per cent of all Australian mobile page views came from an iOS device, compared to 23 per cent from an Android (Windows Phone has not seen a great uptake yet) .Page views are a good indicator of the popularity of an operating system so if you have an existing website, it’s a good idea to have a look at the breakdown of your visitor stats by mobile operating system first before deciding if you want to develop an app for more than one platform.
It’s worth mentioning there are variations within apps and mobile sites as well. Not all apps are written purely in native iOS or Android languages. Facebook, for example, is a hybrid app in that it has embedded HTML which requires web connectivity to function. This also allows for pushing updates cross platform without users having to install a new version of the app first. On the other side, some mobile sites almost behave as apps, with clever usage of HTML5 allowing for swipe gestures (typically associated with native app behaviour), geolocation (local content) and even basic local storage.
What’s right for your business?
In order to decide whether an app would pay off, think about the main purpose of your offering and how your customers will use it. Native apps will likely remain the preferred interface particularly for heavier content, games and for pay-per-download apps thanks to integrated billing options offered by App Stores. But mobile sites beat apps for reach and faster time to market. It also comes down to the industry you are in, what your competitors are doing and how unique your offering is. If you see your customers interacting with you frequently, an app could make sense.