Aaron Shapiro

What to Consider When Considering An App

Originally published by Jumpstart Magazine, in the January/March 2015 Issue

Over the last 12 months, data released by comScore and mobile app analytics provider Flurry has shown significant growth in the amount of time people spend using mobile applications. This has led writers like Christopher Mims to argue that the mobile web is dead, killed by native apps.

As a result of the technical limitations of mobile phones and broadband over the last 8 years, native applications have become incredibly popular, and their success has driven the widespread adoption of smartphones. But in the future, most organizations will be able to best meet users’ mobile needs through a well designed responsive website or web application.

When the iPhone was first launched in 2007, there weren’t any apps at all; just shortcuts to the mobile web. Those first HTML “web apps” were intended to be instantly available, secure, and simple to build. But limited browser functionality, poor wireless coverage, and slow connection speeds meant web apps and sites were capable of less, were slow to render, and didn’t work without an Internet connection.

Then, in 2008, we welcomed the app store and the native app gold rush. Native applications offered the functionality that web apps had been missing, capturing the imaginations of both users (who suddenly found their phones more useful) and developers (who could make money out of their creation and usage).

Today, we have more than 3 million apps across Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Blackberry app stores. While a small number of apps have become wildly successful brand service extensions, the vast majority have been dismal failures, languishing in a sea of investments that went nowhere. Data shows we’re using apps more than ever before, but we aren’t using more than a handful of them. The six brands responsible for nine of the 10 most-used apps are Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay.

Not long ago, the software that powered our computers was purchased on CDs – the 1990s version of the native app. We bought our favorite software (Word Perfect, anyone?) on discs until we were able to download it. Today, ubiquitous broadband is killing downloadable software: it’s easier to run programs from the browser and save our data to the Cloud (hello, Google Drive).

If that was the trajectory for the desktop, then should we really expect mobile computers to be any different? Ubiquitous, high-speed mobile broadband and increasing browser functionality will eventually render mobile apps unnecessary.

As businesses plan future investments, it pays to consider the following: the primary use case of people interacting with their brand on a mobile device, the complexity of building and maintaining mobile applications, and the cost of user acquisition. In many cases, browser-based mobile services have clear advantages over native applications.

Primary use case: In order to operate effectively in the future, brands must evolve into smart services that enhance users’ lives through technology. For companies already in the middle of this transformation, a native application can be the most effective way to support the relationship between user and brand. Delta Airlines’ application, for example, helps passengers save time and avoid stress through their booking and boarding procedure. But many companies have fleeting, transactional relationships with their customers facilitated by search, social, and advertising. If your company’s interactions are the result of users researching products, buying things online, reading articles, watching video clips, sharing content, solving customer support problems, or clicking on an ad, then you’ll probably get more out of a great responsive website than an app.

Build and maintenance: Web products are significantly easier to build and maintain than apps. Companies considering a native application must answer the question: “what do we design for first?” Is it the iPhone, the iPad, or one of Android’s 200+ phones or tablets? In some cases, the developer has to make a choice between optimizing one platform and limiting their market, or building several apps and then maintaining the experience across multiple, ever-evolving platforms. Mobile web, on the other hand, allows companies to quickly build customized experiences that are comparatively easy to maintain across devices.

Cross application integration: The ability to take advantage of native phone functionality and eliminate security issues are currently the two strongest arguments in favor of native apps. Banking apps, for example, depend on native functionality that allows users to take in-app photos of checks and deposit them using the application. As browser functionality and security evolves, people will feel just as secure on their mobile browsers as they do on their web browsers.

Acquisition and accessibility: While apps may now be better for supporting ongoing user relationships, the web is better suited for acquiring new users. If you’re acquiring users from search, an advertisement, or a shared link, it’s a lot easier for users to click over to a mobile-optimized website instead of directing them to an app store and hoping that they download the app, wait for it to install, and then open it. For this reason, companies that are in the business of maximizing content consumption or e-commerce sales will find that responsive web is a smart investment choice. And while many companies are trying to fix this, for now, the only way to make your company's information accessible from search or easily linkable is through the mobile web; content within apps is still locked away, and you can forget about deep-linking from one app to another.

For those who choose to forgo web acquisition in favor of encouraging people to download an app, remember this: while time spent using apps may be increasing, the number of new app downloads are not. comScore’s MobiLens reports that the majority of smartphone users (66%) download a grand total of zero new apps per month, while 17% download merely one or two. And a download doesn’t guarantee usage: 42% of all app time spent on smartphones happens on that user’s single most used app.

Apps also encounter significant barriers to use. Limited discoverability in app stores and the obstacle of the download itself remain high. And if you think about it, a user who has added a well-designed responsive site to their phone's homepage and accesses it on mobile broadband has virtually the same experience as someone accessing an app from their homepage. As web functionality continues to improve, apps and websites will converge; users will simply use icons on their phone to open up different mobile experiences; they'll be oblivious to what the technology was that powered them – whether it be web, app or some hybrid.

All of this begs the question: unless you are extending a service to your users through an application, is a native app really the right investment for you? Responsive web development is often a cheaper and smarter investment, more relevant to user needs, and easier to build and maintain.