Should we build a mobile app, or a mobile website?

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mobile app vs mobile web differencesAs we all know the web is constantly changing, new platforms seem to launch every day, and new development techniques are being touted as the future of live as we know it most weeks.

One piece of advice that has remained consistent over the last few years is that brands need to evaluate how customers use their services when on the move.

A common question we are asked when speaking about mobile strategy is:

Should we build a mobile app or a mobile version of our site/product?

Well, first we need to define exactly what we are talking about when speaking about a mobile app and mobile web.

When we speak about mobile apps are talking specifically about “native” apps which are developed for particular smartphones and appear in their respective app stores.

Mobile web means developing a site or product online which is designed to emulate the feel of a native app, but is accessed by a web browser on the smartphone.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages:

Mobile App Advantages

  • Available in the app stores -  much easier for new users to find
  • Greater access to the phone’s hardware - faster graphics, seamless file system usage
  • Push Notifications - only apps installed on a phone can send true push notification, although SMS messages can be used as a less friendly but more accessible alternative.
  • True fullscreen experience -  mobile web sites are restricted by the phone’s web browser has which means you lose valuable screen space.

Mobile Web Features

  • Cross platform - when properly developed mobile web sites work across most modern phones and even feature phones in some cases (see twitter)
  • Flexible Versioning -  without an app store there is no barrier to releasing new versions of your site whenever you want, which makes it easier to A/B test a new feature.
  • Lower Development costs

There is a hybrid approach that can be used which is something like Appcelerator’s Titanium framework which allows developers to build using HTML/CSS/Javascript and then wrap it up into a native app. The primary advantage of system like this is you develop once like Mobile Web and then deploy with most of the advantages of a native app.

Using the Lean Start-up’s concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) one approach I have been recommending is to look at developing a mobile web site first, work with your users to decide if a full blown mobile app would be useful and if so migrate your existing code over to a framework like Titanium. If it turns out the a mobile app isn’t required you still have a beautiful, future-proof website that you can continually evaluate to guide your next mobile steps.

App icons on smartphone image via Bigstock

New Facebook mobile changes for iOS

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Iphone screenshot of facebook appOur Park Bench and Scratching Post Facebook apps have gone from strength to strength since their launch earlier this year, with over 7,000 pet owners making their own pet profile.

One of the challenges faced when building Facebook apps in the past has been how to make them accessible to mobile users. Whilst Facebook offers quite a good mobile interface for Pages, using and discovering apps built within Facebook has proven a challenge.

Last week Facebook made some changes to how its platform works for mobile apps, and I wanted to highlight 3 of them which I think are particularly interesting:

A new mobile and web app

Similar to Twitter’s mobile app changes back in May, Facebook has narrowed the gap between their mobile web experience and native apps on iOS (Blackberry/Android presumably coming soon). The Facebook iPad and iPhone apps now perform almost exactly the same as their m.facebook.com experience.

Bookmarks

A familiar part of the Facebook web experience, bookmarks are added on the left hand side of your home page once you’ve authorised an app. Its a handy place to keep track of the apps you use most, along with your Pages, Groups and Events. The new Facebook app and mobile web app now features the same set of information in a pop out.

If you’re a brand who uses a Facebook app to engage with your audience, keeping your app at the forefront of their mind is really important. The bookmarks overlay means you can do this as easily on someone’s mobile as you can on the desktop.

Requests

An extension to the Facebook notification system, requests are a neat way to invite your friends to join an app you’re using. You can share that you’re using an app, or prompt them to take a turn in a game. Requests are a likely to become an important tool when looking to grow the audience for your app - the equivalant of ‘sharing’ a post or image from a page.

Zynga (originally of Farmville fame) are one of the first to take advantage of this, building the Words with Friends on the new mobile platform. If you’ve previously created an account through the (rather addictive) iPhone app and connected to Facebook you’ll be able to play the game on your mobile web browser, and indeed on the Facebook desktop. You’ll get all the notifications you’re used to when someone has taken a turn, and you can start a game on your desktop and continue on your mobile browser.

By making it easier for app developers to build mobile apps within Facebook, and providing some of the social channels we’ve become familiar with on the ‘full’ Facebook experience I think Facebook has started to open its mobile audience up to even more exciting opportunities.