A Decade of Apps
It’s been more than a decade since the launch of the first iPhone, which brought powerful internet-connected devices into the mainstream. Since then, dozens of hardware makers have come and gone, and various competing platforms have risen to compete with Apple’s iOS. Whereas the internet was the ultimate media platform in the 2000’s, it seemed that a universe of beautiful and feature-rich apps would take its place. It wasn’t long until every company was turning away from its bland website and investing in a snazzy new mobile app.
That app cachet still exists to this day. Clients are often surprised that we at Convergence don’t immediately suggest the development of iOS/Android apps. While of course we love apps, we don’t actually recommend them for most projects. Most projects really just need a great, responsive web client.
Responsive web design (RWD) is an approach to web design which makes web pages render well on a variety of devices and screen sizes.
While advancements in mobile hardware and software make headlines every year, what we seem to take for granted is just how powerful and flexible mobile web clients are nowadays. A modern, mobile-friendly website is able to provide the vast majority of functionality that our clients require in their projects.
Examples of Surprising Things That You Can Do on a Mobile Site
A beautiful online store like Adidas…
… a rich-media property booking/rating platform like AirBNB…
… or straight up Instagram, complete with notifications, filters and a swipeable Stories tray at the top.
Quite a lot is possible without having an app.
Other Advantages of Mobile Web Development
As with any website, their responsive mobile counterparts can display text content, data, images and video. They can also access mobile-specific features such as click-to-call (to dial a phone number) and location-based mapping. A good rule of thumb is to plan for the development of a mobile website until you hit the limit of what the mobile web can handle. If any of the following are needed, you should probably consider a web client instead of deploying apps into the app stores:
- Immediacy – Mobile Websites Are Instantly Available
A mobile website is instantly accessible to users via a browser across a range of devices without the need for a download/install process. It’s a much lower barrier to entry for new users. How many times have you thought oh great, another app that I have to install? Your users will all feel the same way. Be sure that this is something you’re willing to ask your users to do.
- Compatibility – Mobile Websites Are Compatible Across Devices
This is huge. Much progress has been made with cross platform dev tools like React Native and Xamarin Studio, but, of course, websites work everywhere with a bare minimum of customization. Web standards are extremely well respected by all major browsers now; the days of cross-browser compatibility headaches are almost over.
- Findability – Mobile Websites Can Be Found Easily
As long as your web content is being consumed and shared, it will pop up in a Google search. Your app, on the other hand, may never see the front page in the App Store (or in Google Play), as it has to compete with thousands of similar (and similarly named) apps in one category.
- Shareability – Mobile Websites Can Be Shared Easily by Publishers, and Between Users
The way we share links on social media platforms such as Twitter/Facebook is so convenient – we forget that downloading a new app requires users to do weird things like ‘asking how something is spelled’ – especially for brand new apps with fewer users. Sharing in-app content is not something that comes out-of-the-box; much thought and effort must be put into the mechanics of sharing in-app content with those outside of the app.
- Time and Cost – Mobile Websites are Easier and Less Expensive
This may seem obvious, but in choosing a mobile site over a pair of apps (iOS and Android are a necessity nowadays) you’re getting more bang for your buck, especially when you’re trying to test out the product/market fit. A mobile site developed on a smaller budget can make for a great prototype or MVP. With this in mind, Convergence offers an MVP program to eligible startups that may require assistance in getting an MVP off the ground.
If All of This is Possible on a Mobile Site, What’s the Point of Apps?
Some advanced (resource intensive or device-specific) features are not feasible with web apps, but the line that separates what web apps can and cannot do gets blurrier every year. Generally speaking, if you need one of the following, an app makes sense:
For interactive games (think Angry Birds), an app is almost always going to be your best choice, at least for the foreseeable future. Applications requiring complex visuals, complex gestures or other highly creative UI elements will definitely need to go the app route.
- Complex Calculations/Reporting
Manipulations of complex data, such as an animated real-time dashboard, would be taxing for a browser to handle, and would result in a poor user experience (due to delays in responsiveness). The more complex the calculations, the more likely your users will want (and need) an app for this. A cool example of this is Apple’s Measure app, which uses AR to measure 3D objects in the camera’s viewfinder.
- Native Functionality or Processing Required
Although many of a smartphone’s technologies are available to web developers, to really take advantage of the camera – and the true processing power of the device – a native app is going to be your best bet.
- Offline Functionality
Native apps always offer a default user experience when an internet connection is not present. Many apps even use this as a driver for their premium subscription service: they offer offline access to premium subscribers, and online-only access to free users. If your application is a utility – that is, a tool that does not and should not require network connectivity to use – then an app may make the most sense.
By now you should have a pretty good idea of which group you fall into. If your project is defined by requirements that can only be met by a native app, the you’ll need to develop both iOS and Android apps, downloadable from the App Store and Google Play. If not, a responsive mobile site is perfect for you.
Another way to arrive at this decision is by looking at it from within an MVP/post-MVP context: it may be wise to develop a mobile site to validate your idea, secure investment based on the MVP, and then really invest in full-blown iOS/Android apps.
In time you may very well wish to offer both an impressive feature set on the mobile web and a native app with enhanced features. Instagram is a perfect example of this: their native apps offer camera-related enhancements/features that their web client does not.
Have questions related to the development of a mobile-first software product? Please get in touch with us – we’d love to discuss your business’ needs.
Michael is Design Lead at Convergence. From drawing to design to code, he loves the creative problem solving process.