Design for Mobile: Native vs. Web Apps

by Luke Wroblewski September 22, 2010

In his Web vs. App vs. Hybrid presentation at Design for Mobile in Chicago IL, Jason Grigsby showed how the question of native vs. mobile Web experiences is really a conversation about how to do both well for your product. Here's my notes from his talk:

  • At the WWDC in 2007, Steve Jobs touted a sweet solution to use build apps for the iPhone using Safari and Web apps. Web advocates were thrilled. Native Mac developers were disappointed.
  • In October 2007, Apple announced the App Store. The extent of its success was a big surprise. It went against the trend of Web-based apps, Cloud computing, software as services, etc. iPhone apps were the opposite: few APIs between apps, local storage.
  • But from a mobile paradigm the app store was much better. It was much more open and potentially profitable than shipping apps on mobile carrier’s terms. From this perspective it made a lot of sense that is was successful.
  • Native Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Web apps. They are both apps. Mobile is bigger than just apps. Native Apps will always have better access to platform, resources, etc. Because they are not within a Web browser. But this doesn’t mean that native apps are always the way to go.

Mobile Web

  • Small businesses –it might never make sense for them to have native applications. But it does make sense for them to have a mobile Web presence.
  • Even companies that make their money solely on building native apps need to have a good mobile Web presence. So people can learn about and share URLs to get information about their products.
  • URLS don’t open applications. Use case: people email urls to each other –people should able to go these urls while on the go.
  • The mobile Web does not censor content and allows you to publish when you want.
  • 85% of the smartphones that ship use WebKit as their core engine. While not all are created equal, there’s a lot more consistency then differences in WebKit builds.
  • Find a single report that doesn’t show exponential growth for the mobile Web. All data shows extreme growth in mobile Web.
  • Mobile Web is more open, no entry costs, you get to keep 100% of revenue, you can do instantaneous releases, but there is no micropayments.
  • Biggest mobile Web experience challenges = no position: fixed, no accelerated scrolling. You want position fixed relative to the view port not to the viewable area.

Native Apps

  • Do native apps really create platform lock-in? Most people use less then 6 apps per day –that’s about $20. Your switching costs between platforms are not that high.
  • Android is outselling the iPhone but has an inferior app store. So is the app platform creating lock-in? Doesn’t seem to be.
  • In the video game market, the leader changes as platforms change. The mobile market may be more like the video game market than the PC market.
  • In a model where people stop using your apps after a few times, where is the recurring the revenue for app developers? Can you really build a sustainable business on someone else’s app store?
  • Some apps will be rejected from App stores (based on their terms) –so how much should you bank your businesses future on a platform you can’t control.
  • In order to have a viable business opportunity, you need to move beyond a single platform’s app store. When you do, there’s a lot of fragmentation you hit between all the development requirements. It makes the cost of development high.
  • Six main reasons for apps: performance, offline mode, findability, device capabilities, monetization.
  • Performance: All Javascript rendering engines are getting faster and are good enough for most Web applications. The size of Web pages has tripled; the number of objects on Web pages has doubled. We need to do better on how we serve mobile Web pages to devices.
  • Offline mode: HTML5 can do offline mode. This isn’t really a concern.
  • Findability: there are issues with being found in the app store just liek there are on the Web. Need a marketing plan in both cases. People will begin to search for tasks they need answers on apps stores and on the Web.
  • Monetization: this is a gap on the mobile Web and perhaps the biggest unresolved one.

Why Choose?

  • So what should you do in the meantime to avoid the gaps between native and Web apps?
  • We should hedge our bets and go for the long term = mobile web.
  • Start with content, detect devices, use reference designs, then add functionality using PhoneGap and Titanium –to develop cross platform apps with Web technologies.
  • Native vs. Web is not an either or question. The answer is both! Websites should work no matter what device you are on.