Mobile Website or Native Application – Which should you have?

As mobile & smartphone technology rapidly gains penetration amongst the general populace, as a business owner or content provider, it is time to ask yourself:  How best can I serve my customer or user base on a mobile platform?  How can I provide value and an enhanced user experience for those on the go?  Do I even care?

Well, you should.  Mobile internet usage almost double in the last year; almost 65% of users have internet access on their phones; and over 68% of Australians plan to use their phone for transactions and payments in the near future.  The smartphone explosion is changing the way we not only access the internet and information, but the way we find products and services, and even buy them.

The rapid rise of mobile commerce is showing some clear trends; consumers are embracing it for convenience, and providers must embrace it now or be left behind.  Recent statistics show that mobile commerce now makes up for than 10% of popular gateway payments; and at the same time, 80% of Australian businesses don’t have mobile optimised websites.  This meteoric rise is not set to slow down any time soon, and so it begs the question; How can I get on board?

The answer is not simple, nor should be approached with the hopes of a quick fix.  The way in which your users and customers will derive the best experience from your mobile services depends entirely upon the nature of your business, and how you already serve those customers.

 

Mobile Website, or Native Application?

These days, the two main ways of delivering content to users is via one or both of the methods above.  A mobile website is a special version of your website, optimised for the mobile experience; it runs through the phones browser, loads quickly and is usable and readable on a mobile device.  A native application (such as an iPhone/iPad, Android or Windows Phone 7 App), is a downloadable app, distributed through that platforms app store, and is unique to that platform.

Choosing a platform can be hard.  In September 2010, 37% of users were running Apple’s iOS, while 22% were running Google’s Android OS, and 31% running Nokia’s Symbian OS.  However, even in the short time-frame between then and now, Symbian is dead, Android sales have overtaken iOS, and Nokia has partnered with Microsoft to include Windows Phone 7 on new Nokia handsets.

What this shows is that the marketplace is dynamic and diverse – care must be taken when considering which platform is right for your user base, or your wonderful mobile experience could be completely ignored.

The right platform for you to deliver your products/services will depend on the nature of your business.  We’ll outline some benefits and drawbacks to each implementation below, and then show some common use-cases, to try and give an idea of the best way to approach your situation.

Mobile Website

Benefits:

Can be accessed from any internet-enabled device – This means that a user with a Nokia handset from 2005 can still access your information and services, even though they are using an out-dated phone.

Write once – If integrated into your existing website, you only have to update your content once and it will be delivered to all mobile users.  Also, your developer only has to write one lot of code, and it targets all platforms.

Ease of use – If a user is interested about your company, and googles you while on the bus, they can find out what they need to know easily and comfortably.  This requires no pre-commitment from them (such as downloading an App from a store).

 

Drawbacks:

Inconsistency across platforms – Although improving, the rendering of web pages across different handsets and browsers can cause viewing inconsistencies.  Due to the enormous range of screen sizes and resolutions available on today’s phone market (not to forget legacy phones from five years ago), this can make developing a mobile website (especially a complicated one), more difficult than it should be.

No native features – Mobile websites, while having the potential to look gorgeous and provide a decent user experience, still can’t live up to the experience of using a native app on a smartphone.  This is especially noticeable on highly visual applications, like a slider of graphics or embedded movies.

This also applies to getting information from the handset itself, like GPS data.  Although possible with the latest advances, it is a lot more difficult from a mobile website than a native app.

Internet access required – Although almost ubiquitous these days, if your application needs to work offline, a mobile website simply won’t cut it.

 

Native Application

Benefits:

Speed & user experience – Once downloaded and loaded onto your phone, a native app has the potential to look gorgeous and run buttery smooth.  If you’re trying to wow your user base, this is really the way to go.  It will also provide a smoother implementation of native features like GPS data or form submission.   User testing has shown native apps have much higher usability than mobile websites.

User retention – Users may forget your URL, but if they have an app sitting on their home screen, they will be more likely to pick it up again and remember their experience with it.

Drawbacks:

Expense – If making a mobile application, platform selection directly impacts expense.  Will you develop for only iPhone? What about iPad?  Android?  Windows Phone 7? Symbian?  Blackberry?  How many of these will your users get value from?  How many will you actively maintain?

Payment Constriction – Some mobile application distributors will constrict the ways in which your native app can accept payments from consumers – this may force you into a business model you may not want for your business.

Pre-commitment required – A native app requires, before anything else can occur, that a user is interested enough and has enough space on their phone to go to the app store, find your app, download it and run it.  This process may deter some, especially if they are just after quick information like a phone number or email address.

 

Comparison Summary:

In the end it comes down to what kind of user experience you want to offer your users.  Some kind of basic mobile-optimised website should be considered a must-have, even if you offer services on mobile platforms – this would serve to provide fast information to users and legacy devices, and to promote your native apps.

Common examples of mobile experiences

Website not taking payments, wants to go mobile

First of all, why aren’t you taking payments online?!  eCommerce isn’t going away any time soon, and there is almost no business model which doesn’t support some kind of online payment.  A tradie can book appointments and take deposits online; advanced forms can support even the most complicated of quoting processes.

However, if you already have a website and want to provide a better experience for mobile users without going overboard, a mobile website is probably the way to go.  You can provide information in an easy to find and read manner, without blowing the bank.

eCommerce site, slow and not optimised for mobile

This is a bit trickier – as a virtual shopfront, you want to provide the best user experience while giving users a visual treat to entice them.  A mobile website is a definite must-have here, but may well be supported by native apps.

Consider a clothing store – they could provide a native app, targeted on the platform which has the highest market penetration amongst their user base, which provides glossy, high-res photos of their products in a smooth slider – but clicking buy could redirect the user to the mobile website to complete the transaction, thus avoiding the platform’s restrictive in-app payments.

Tourism/Hospitality provider – wants user experience

Again, some kind of mobile website would be recommended – users on a mobile device simply must be able to find information about you.  However, a native app could provide a beautifully rich user experience not matched by a mobile website.

Take a winery with attached restaurant as an example; the app could provide GPS filtered data on the types of vines the user is seeing as they wander around, a gorgeous visual restaurant menu and full product catalogue of wines, with videos on the history of the winery and its day to day operations to top it off.

 

Conclusion

Here we’re only scratching the surface of this deep and involved question.  Ultimately, good advice from your trusted developer is invaluable, but keeping up with the latest information and trends can help immensely when making your mobile investment decisions.

Hopefully this article has given you a good base of information about the issues you will face when approaching mobile development, and some ideas about the road to take.  Ultimately, don’t hold back.  Now is the time to jump into the mobile revolution; those who stand back will be left behind.

 

 

 

References

http://nett.com.au/news/australia-has-second-highest-global-smartphone-penetration-study-shows-100240/

http://www.slideshare.net/dynamicclarity/global-australian-smartphone-and-apple-ios-statistics-in-june-2011

http://www.paypal-education.com.au/media/news_24032011.html

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/mobile-usability.html