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Jan 12 2013   10:03PM GMT

Does Your Company Really Need a Custom Mobile App?

Robin Robin "Roblimo" Miller Profile: Robin "Roblimo" Miller

The short answer to this question is, “No.” My favorite local TV news station, WTSP, has an iPad app they push during nearly every news broadcast. That’s wonderful if you have an iPad. But if you have a smart phone or tablet with no lower-case “i” in front of it, like my Android phone, you don’t get a special app. That’s sad for WTSP, since a December 2012 IDC study showed Android holding 68.3% of the smartphone operating system market with iOS a distant second at 18.8%. And — surely to WTSP’s chagrin — there are many more mobile phones than tablets. Even worse, I can see WTSP’s website on my Android phone — by tapping M.WTSP.COM into the little virtual keyboard. Since WTSP already has a mobile site, why do they also have a custom iPad app that surely cost a whole bunch of money to develop? Chances are, sooner or later they’ll drop support for the specialized app in favor of their mobile website.


iPhones were the first smart phones. They were introduced in 2007, with Android phones roughly a year behind them. Back then, when smart phones were barely crawling out of the ocean onto the shore, and browser software for them wasn’t very good, an iPhone app for your business seemed like the best way to reach smart phone users.

Not long after that, with Android grabbing a growing share of the smart phone market, you needed not one, but two apps.

Or you can do as Future PLC has done with their new iPad magazine, tech. That’s right. A magazine strictly for iPad users. Not even the more numerous iPhone people are supposed to read it. And the far, far more numerous Android people? We certainly won’t bother with them, say the iSnobs at tech magazine.

This is obviously an ultra-niche publication. It’s going to have to get a ferocious ad rate to stay in business, because its potential audience is such a tiny percentage of mobile device users.

If you are already in a niche market, either geographically or because you appeal to a limited set of interests, can you afford to ignore 68% of mobile phone users in favor of the elite 19% who have iPhones? Or vice versa?

Forget Mobile Apps. Make a Mobile Website!

Once upon a time there were online services such as Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL. Each one required special software. Each one charged a monthly fee. None of them could communicate with the other ones; if you were on AOL you couldn’t send messages to friends on GeniE or CompuServe.

Then came the Internet. It had been around, but not open to ordinary people. After it opened up, instead of advertising your business on CompuServe or paying for a page on Prodigy, you made a website — and everybody, no matter what ISP they used, could see it.

The general movement of the Internet is toward more standardization, not less. Custom mobile phone apps are a move in the opposite direction. But it is a move that will not last. Why not? Because, if you can deliver your information or sell your wares to all mobile users with a single mobile version of your website, why would you want to spend money on multiple custom apps for multiple mobile operating systems?

There are many services that will help you convert a regular website into a mobile one, none of which cost anything near as much as a custom mobile app, let alone multiple ones so that your site will work for all mobile phone and tablet users, no matter what operating system they run.

2  Comments on this Post

 
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  • ggruber66
    There is nothing wrong with this article, but on the other hand it is far from being right. Yes, building a mobile website has the flavor of build once, distribute everywhere, but it does not always lead to the best result. Many will likely interpret this article to say that you need just 1 mobile-optimized site. Yet there are phones and tablets to consider. You can utilize responsive design, but it is not simple, nor does it solve all the world's problems. Here's a good article on a comparison for building mobile optimized sites.

    Secondly, the article quotes IDC market share numbers between iOS and Android to make the case that WTSP and others made a mistake in targeting iOS in addition to building a dedicated app. But the writer also conveniently leaves out statistics which say that even with the difference in "activation" share, that iOS leads in mobile browsing usage by a factor of 4:1 even with the imbalance the other way in activation share. Further the writer also leaves out the fact that user engagement is typically much higher in a dedicated native app than in a mobile site, in part because of finer control of the environment and the ability to leverage the native capabilities of the devices themselves in the interaction.

    But despite the inaccuracies in the article, there are companies who would be better served with a mobile website than incurring the expense of a native app (whether iOS or Android). But it's decision that must be made thoughtfully, without bias and based on the objectives you want to achieve. This is not a religious battle, nor is it one where you should look only for the lowest cost solution.
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  • Robin "Roblimo" Miller
    ggruber, you're right. You can get as complicated as you want with mobile site(s), optimizing them for Galaxy S2 and iPhone 3 and so on. You can also believe in the KISS principle, and make your computer and mobile sites both as simple as possible. 

    The thing is, browsers and mobile CSS are both getting better all the time. Designers, too, are getting more experience with designing for mobile devices.

    Remember the days of "best viewed with (browser)" sites? That's sort of where we are with the mobile web. At the moment. But we won't be there for long. Please watch this space (same bat time, same bat channel) for another bit of information coming soon about why sanity and budgets will dictate the use of mobile "all OSes" sites instead of dedicated apps. 
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