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Should you build a native app or a mobile website? The answer depends on who you ask, and there's a very good chance that the person you ask will have very strong feelings one way or the other.
Yes, the native versus web debate is still alive and well, and those on both sides are still ready to throw down over their beliefs.
The arguments can get pretty creative. For instance, Frog creative director Scott Jenson recently wrote:
The problem with apps, and by this I mean native apps that must be downloaded to your phone, is that they are just becoming too much trouble to organise and maintain. It's just not realistic to have an app for every store you go to, every product you own and every website you visit.
It's a curious argument. After all, one could easily make the statement, "The problem with websites is that they are just becoming too much trouble to organise and maintain. It's just not realistic to have a website for every store you go to and every product you own".
For those looking for more pragmatic and less ideological guidance on how native apps and mobile websites fit into their digital strategies, here are three rules to live by.
Rule #1: It's not an either-or proposition
Lost in many of the debates over native apps versus mobile websites is a simple fact: you're not limited to one! If your business has use cases for which a native app makes the most sense (eg. provides for the best experience, is more efficient, etc.), you may also find use cases for which a mobile version of your website also makes sense.
If you find support for offering both a native app and a mobile website, why not implement both? Pretending that you can't is sort of like pretending that a retailer that once sold primarily via catalogue can't and shouldn't sell via the internet too.
Rule #2: Mobile websites promote usability, native apps promote relationships
For many businesses, a mobile website is a good idea. After all, there's a good chance some of your customers (perhaps a large number of them) are accessing your website from their mobile devices.
Needless to say, if your website isn't usable on those devices, you're losing the ability to connect to those customers when they want to connect with you. From this perspective, the value proposition for a mobile website is clear: you want your website to be as usable as possible on as many of the devices that are commonly used to access it.
At the same time, there may be instances where your customers need to engage with you in ways that aren't easily optimized for the mobile web. There may be functionality which is only possible through native APIs and there may be complex interactions for which native UI elements are more intuitive. To boot, there may be connectivity limitations which need to be dealt with.
In these cases, native mobile apps may be an ideal solution for building experiences that go beyond what some subset of your customers would expect in a mobile web experience. This subset of customers will generally be your most loyal, and if that's the case, building something special for them can be a wise investment.
Rule #3: If you build it, they will not come
Whether you're building a native app or a mobile website, or both, you should have one expectation: it's competitive out there. In the app stores, there are literally hundreds of thousands of native apps available for download, and on the web, there are millions of websites.
To acquire and retain users and customers, the functionality you offer and experiences you create in mobile, whether through native apps or mobile websites, needs to be compelling. Which is, of course, the case on the web generally.