The mobile web app vs native apps debate is an interesting one. One of the speakers at yesterday’s iOSDevCamp event delivered a good talk on mobile web apps. Here are some of the topics we discussed and debated.
Number of touch-optimized mobile websites: The speaker provided data to show that the number of touch-optimized mobile websites was a multiple of the total number of iPhone and Android apps. He also made the point that mobile websites had more users than native mobile apps.
The data on web-app numbers and user-numbers are interesting, but I think that for many businesses, they are far less important than other factors such as Revenue potential, Discoverability/Distribution and User experience. On these counts, native apps and the app store generally do much better than mobile-web apps.
User Experience: In general, as a practical matter, on the iPhone, native apps offer a far superior user experience to mobile web apps. In almost every instance where the iPhone user has a native app option, they are more likely to use the native app instead of an equivalent web site.
At the talk, the speaker promoted mobile web apps and mentioned that the New York Times app on the iPhone was just a “web application” with a “native shell” and hosted Safari web controls and “web content”, but I pointed out that this assertion was incorrect. The iPhone NYT app is a native iPhone app and (from its V1 days) it seems to have been using standard Cocoa Touch classes such as UITabBarController, UITableViewController etc. Almost every iPhone NYT reader uses the NYT app instead of the NYT website.
Revenue potential: In my opinion, native apps sold through the app store offer a much superior revenue model for mobile apps. Web apps generally find it a lot more difficult to charge users for products/services and ad-funded models for web apps often don’t yield much revenue. As an example, the developer of the iPad Elements app said that their iPad app earned more revenue in one day (through the app store) than what their equivalent web app (PeriodicTable.com) had earned with ads in four years.
Reach: A single mobile web app can generally run on several different types of mobile devices and therefore it will offer a wider reach than any one single native app. So if being accessible from a wide range of devices is very important (or if the appearance of providing equal service to all phones is important), the mobile web may be a better option than building multiple native apps. However, there are caveats with the assumptions of wider reach.
A decade ago, at Microsoft, one of the teams I led worked on the development of mobile apps. Based on that experience, I’d caution against assumptions that a mobile web app tested on one device will run well on all mobile devices. For that matter, cross-browser issues have been a problem on desktop browsers as well.
Is it possible for the web to crush native apps: Anything is possible, but it is unlikely that HTML5 or other mobile web apps will win over native apps in the near-term.
A resource-rich organization can certainly invest inmobile web apps *and* native mobile apps now. That would be a good way to hedge their bets. However, many organizations may not have the resources to invest in web-apps and native apps and will need to decide whether they need to invest on sophisticated mobile web-apps or (one or more) native mobile apps.