When is an App not an App… ?
… when it’s a Mobile Website of course. DUH! Or IS it that simple?
… what about those Web App thingies? … and what’s the difference anyway? … are either of these anything to do with Native Apps? … by the way, what’s a Native App when it’s at home?
OK, so you get the drift! But the point is there’s a lot of potential for confusion in the appmosphere and the language we use to talk about it. So, let’s disengage from the horns and unpack the dilemma by looking at some basic definitions.
Native apps are built using the preferred technology of one specific platform such as Apple, Android or Blackberry. This means that each native is uniquely suited to the functionality and features sets of the platform in order to provide the best user experience for specific devices. Natives are generally downloaded from an app store (Apple App Store, Android Market, BlackBerry App World) to a smartphone. Getting them is straightforward — go to store, search for app, tap on it (perhaps pay), download, install, run. In effect, like the mountain, they come to you!
On the other hand, a mobile website (mobile web) sits on a server and is accessed via the internet. In other words, it is simply a website that has been designed to render effectively on internet-enabled mobile devices which you visit via the browser on your phone. Mobile websites can be bookmarked on phones for future reference, but essentially, you go to them each time.
Then there’s the mobile web app (web app). Web apps behave much more like native apps than mobile web in that they offer users the ability to manipulate data and interact with the app whereas mobile web is typically a read only experience. The great advantage of web apps is that the software is written as web pages making the same app available to most devices that can access the internet, whatever the brand of phone, and with some of the functionality users would expect from a native.
Another variation are the so called ‘hybrid apps’ that use a native app wrapper around mobile web content. Facebook’s popular iPhone app uses this approach with some native app elements in the mix. But it was reported recently in the New York Times that they’re rewriting the app to use only native technology because, despite massive improvements in mobile browser technology, mobile web performs very poorly on mobile devices compared with native apps using native platform technology.
Too much information? Well, back to web apps. On the fact of they offer many significant benefits compared with natives, including significant cost savings, but they also have their limitations.
The principle one being that they can’t tap into the full range of the features and functions that make smartphones … er … smart. This includes integrated payments, scanning, meaningful interactive maps and other location based services. The interactive maps and location based services mentioned here probably aren’t great examples because there are pretty good examples of these being implemented on the mobile web. I would use ‘accessing hardware features such as the camera, sensors, and platform- specific software features and user experience. And the gap is likely to widen as smartphones get progressively smarter and the events world decides where emerging technologies like augmented reality fit.
So it’s not surprising that a few organisations are jumping on the ‘one app to rule them all’ bandwagon and focusing on developing a great web app rather than having to create and maintain a stable of Natives across multi-platforms.
On top of the performance limitations — can’t achieve an equivalent experience, although it’s getting closer — people quite simply want native apps on their phones. Whether this is because they are intrinsically better and people actually use the full functionality they offer or because of incredibly clever marketing on behalf of the Apple’s of the world is a moot point. But for people trying to find their way through the mobile maze, it would be high-risk strategy at this point to limit their mobile horizons to web apps alone; native apps and the app stores are not going away anytime soon.
In the end though, it still comes down to finding the technology solutions that achieve great user experiences. In the events industry, looking out for suppliers that offer a suite of apps that include the most popular natives as well as a good mobile web app opens up the app experience to the majority of mobile users and gets event information into the palms of most hands. End of dilemma!