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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 October, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

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Luke Green

Much of what is said here is common sense, best fit approach for your situation - agreed. But how long will this be the case?

The debate only exists because of the technical considerations of each platform and invariably online, the disparities between the two approaches will disappear.

If you put web applications and native applications on equal footing technically I think the cost benefit always favor web apps.

And while the delivery method in App stores is compelling they too will become just as saturated as the wider web, removing the visibility advantage.

I think users, businesses, developers will crave simplicity over complicated options and web apps allow them to drive a line right through the mainstream of mobile content delivery.

almost 5 years ago

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Luke Green

Much of what is said here is common sense, best fit approach for your situation - agreed. But how long will this be the case?

The debate only exists because of the technical considerations of each platform and invariably online, the disparities between the two approaches will disappear.

If you put web applications and native applications on equal footing technically I think the cost benefit always favor web apps.

And while the delivery method in App stores is compelling they too will become just as saturated as the wider web, removing the visibility advantage.

I think users, businesses, developers will crave simplicity over complicated options and web apps allow them to drive a line right through the mainstream of mobile content delivery.

almost 5 years ago

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wallace morrison

I believe you have barely scratched the surface. I develop mobile websites for a living. I would love to show you some of the things that we are doing today. People discuss the difference between native apps and mobile websites. I integrate the two so that it's all under one roof. I almost plead with you to look at my site. I feel that if you did before you wrote this article you would've went a different direction with it. I integrate native apps in mobile websites so they work seamlessly together. No more leaving a website to see facebook or to tweet. You can find those right inside the mobilite just like on a standard website. Please, by all mean read this blog and see my site:) I can even add in Skype to a mobilite as well. Late's make this easy on everyone:) http://www.iconicbrand5.com/2011/10/17/priceless-mobile-marketing/

almost 5 years ago

Daryl Irvine

Daryl Irvine, Digital Creative Director at The Walker Agency

I think the quote at the beginning of this piece was pointing out that an app installed on a device has a footprint and they add up fast if you consider how many different digital spaces you visit a day/week/year. A site only exists (from a user perspective) when required (and generally within the same viewing port, retested for each requirement).

Another argument for mobile optimisation is SEO, as it creates a tailored, relevant destination that will be more appropriate for users on the move.

Actually another plus for mobile (possibly responsive) sites is maintenance. Update once and the system delivers the latest experience to all.

almost 5 years ago

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wallace morrison

@Daryl Irvine. You are absolutely 100% correct:) The point I was trying to make is that you can solve all of those issues at once. For instance, to put a Social Media Control Panel on your mobilite, you first need to download that app. What I like about that so much is you have those icons on your mobilite that's linked to your Social Media apps. It solves those two issues of having a mobilite and native apps because they work together..off of each other fluidly. As far as SEO goes, here you're hitting another big issue. Since you are using them both together, it must be using SEO to the fullest. Do you remember that most important thing about Ghostbusters? Don't cross the lines right? haha. The reason is that they are both strong, but when they are crossed, things get crazy. I am crossing the lines and I am encouraging everyone else to. Get Ghostbusting!! in a mobile way:)

almost 5 years ago

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Scott Jenson

I am the author of that opening quote and you're doing a 'Fox news' on me, using it out of context. Of course the navigation of X apps == X web sites. That is obvious and not at all my point: the key difference is that I don't have to *install* all of those apps.

My second point was that we have already seen this movie, it was called Yahoo (original) vs Google. When X becomes large, the very act of scrolling through them all becomes unmanageable. Google solved the problem by offering search, it was much better than storage/organization of fixed links. So actually, yes X apps (stored) << X apps (searched) when X is very large.

Next time you use someone's quote to make you point, please be sure to use it properly. I don't appreciate you taking my quote out of context and making a point I didn't intend.

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Scott,

Your quote was not used out of context. You 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."

There's nothing ambiguous about the above, and your words are as easy for a reader to digest as your provocative title: "Mobile apps must die!" If you don't like the way your words read, perhaps you should rethink how you present your ideas.

On that note, I think your attempt to liken native mobile apps versus mobile websites (two different delivery mechanisms for content and functionality) to Yahoo and Google (two websites) highlights your willingness to engage in intellectual gymnastics in an attempt to justify a flawed ideological position. The argument that mobile websites are to native mobile apps what Google was to Yahoo is completely illogical.

Finally, as you note in your article, the idea that "mobile apps must die!" is somewhat counterintuitive given the "overwhelming evidence" showing that native mobile apps are extremely popular (and often quite profitable). Your retort is that "all things come and go", and while you admit that "No one is close to offering anything" like what you envision, you believe a very different mobile future is ahead of us.

That's fine, and perhaps in five or ten years you'll be vindicated, but for businesses looking to develop sensible, profitable mobile strategies *today*, ideologically-based positions don't cut it. There are use cases for both native mobile apps and mobile websites, and businesses that want to be successful will consider both where appropriate.

over 4 years ago

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Scott Jenson

Patricio,

If you didn't understand (or try to understand) my first response, it's unlikely you'll understand my second. Yes, I did say that, but, if you'll bear with me, navigation isn't my sole point, it's installation. If you want to use my quote to 'prove" I said "navigation", then, fine, but you're missing my broader point.

And yes, you're quite correct in pointing out that apps are indeed doing very well. I'm not contesting that point. My broader point was that we need to look at new models. I never intended to prove that mobile apps have to die RIGHT NOW, only that they are blinding us to talking about FUTURE possibilities.

If you insist on denigrating my point by saying 'in 5 or 10 years' I'll be vindicated, you're only making my point for me. You're trying to create a black and white urgency where none was intended. I'm just trying to say 'hey, let's consider other possibilities!" If you wish to paint me as utopian, well, that's your prerogative. I'm just trying to have a subtle conversation about the future. If you want to try and paint me into a corner, that's unfortunate and clearly counter to the conversation i was trying to have with my blog post.

over 4 years ago

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Adam R

Scott,

The main problem with your article was the premise that, if we prefer mobile apps, we need to have one per store we visit. How absurd. The ratio of stores I visit with an app installed to stores I visit without is fairly close to infinity. And I don't visit their websites either. That entire argument is just a red herring.

And maybe 5-10 years from now internet access will be ubiquitous, and fast, but for now installed apps are just a no-brainer for when I want to check NYC Subway routes; check nutrition info on a Starbucks drink; check movie listings; check the weather; and so on.

I really do hate to say never, but it's pretty difficult for me to imagine how a mobile website can ever, ever make an http request, and display the result to me faster and cleaner than an app that already has the data it needs, stored locally.

over 4 years ago

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dave

Apples suck! Oranges rule!

er, I meant to say that Oranges suck! Apples rule!

Awww heck with it. I'm gonna have a fruit salad.

over 4 years ago

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