Don’t Choose Between Mobile Web and Mobile Apps

Image of mobile phone showing this site. When Adobe released InDesign it included a novel feature that was otherwise unheard of to the average agency — the ability to import content into its page templates from XML data. Having developed a web content management system (QuantumCMS for those of you interested in hiring us), we had selected XML as an output option for content, allowing us to deliver that content into any medium that could support XML (such as web pages via XSLT). The idea we proposed to our agency clients was simple: author your content in one place, one data store, and push it out to the web, print, and other media.

None of them got it. Fear of the technology and comfort with an existing platform made it impossible for them to step back and evaluate whether there was a good business case in play. This approach (or lack thereof) is not limited to agencies. Unskilled web developers spent years building text-only versions of sites, feeling terribly proud of themselves when they realized they could wrap different templates around the same content instead of maintaining duplicate sites. Even now in 2011 I still see web developers take advantage of clients by selling the text-only site as an add-on service.

We’re in the same place in the world of mobile. Organizations and developers (clients and vendors) are struggling with the right way to deploy their products to the masses (customers, end users). For reasons perhaps grounded in technology assumptions (preferences, fears, lack of understanding) they tend to look at two options for mobile — apps and web. Assuming that there are only two options is the first mistake they make.

With the recent marketing push over HTML5, CSS3, new APIs (such as geolocation) coupled with the most compliant browsers we’ve seen in years appearing on mobile in far greater percentages than desktop, we have a viable platform on which to develop web-based experiences that are functional and effective. The idea that a developer can develop one web-based application and deploy to the web, to iPhone, Android, Palm, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices should be a compelling reason to consider that a starting point.

There are many things, however, that we cannot yet do via the web, such as access your mobile phone’s camera, or take advantage of more robust touch-based interfaces. These are features best utilized directly through the mobile device, ideally via its API.

It is possible to develop an app for a mobile phone that is nothing more than an embedded web browser (by instantiating the default browser) along with elements that access the phone’s hardware features. You risk the loss of a more robust user interface for your web-based content, but you gain the benefit of developing simpler apps for each platform while retaining control over your core service and content in your own hosted environment.

With the new payment models that are shaking out in the mobile apps market, the web-first approach might be a more appropriate way to build your business model. Given the uproar over Apple’s recent requirement that subscription-based app developers offer subscription options through the Apple app store (and at no cheaper on their own sites), in exchange for a hefty 30% cut, relying on the mobile device itself to deliver your content becomes a suddenly more costly solution. Instead, just having a mobile-friendly site can be sufficient to handle sign-ins and subscriptions, which also carries over to other devices (iPad, Android) and platforms (desktop, tablets).

Certainly not everything can be deployed via the web. A music service, for example, is tough to do even with excellent support for the unfinished HTML5 audio element. But looking at a web-first or hybrid approach allows you to reduce your development and deployment costs as you support fewer platforms, and share your content with nearly any web-enabled device.


Posts on this blog that help lay some of the groundwork of these thoughts.

There is so much content out there about the Apple app store rules that, while I had planned to write post about it on my own, I felt that adding to the noise wouldn’t help. Instead here are some of the links I cultivated for the post I never wrote.

Update: March 11, 2011

If you read An Open Letter to Apple from Readability, then you know that it submitted an app to the Apple App Store that was in limbo. The issue came down to the Readability business model (70% of subscriptions to writers) bumping up with Apple’s new store rules (30% to Apple). Even though Readability already had a mobile version of the site, on Wednesday Readability released updated apps for multiple devices that are really just wrappers for web content. In the end, this can bypass the Apple App Store if Readability can deploy it all via the web, removing the need to use an in-app purchase that pushes 30% directly to Apple. Yesterday ZDNet covered this in the article Readability goes HTML 5 on iOS, expect others to follow, where I think you can see others are starting to see the viability of the business and technology model, partly spurred by Apple’s new pricing model.

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