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GUEST OPINION Stop obsessing over native mobile apps…

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… you don’t need one. That is the advice of Paul Boag, co-founder of web design agency Headscape and author of the “Website Owners Manual” and “Building Websites for Return on Investment.” Here he outlines why you need to chill out

Stop obsessing over native mobile apps: you don’t need one. How’s that for a controversial sweeping statement to grab your attention? Although almost certainly the perfect definition of link bait, it also happens to be true.

That said, there are rare occasions when a native app is right for an organisation. I can think of three scenarios where a native app may well be the appropriate solution:

• You offer a service where users complete a small set of specific tasks. Such as a web app like Twitter or Harvest Time Tracking.

• You have users who need to interact with your product on a regular basis. For example Amazon can justify a native app because they have a significant number of users who are purchasing multiple times a week.

• When you need to use one of the few pieces of native functionality not available to web based apps. Access to the camera is a common example.

However if you don’t fall into one of the above categories there are many good reasons to steer clear of native apps.

In the early days of native apps, when the app stores were young and sparsely populated the return on development could be huge. Competition was scares and users enthusiastic about every new app to hit the store. However, those days are long since gone.

With more than 500,000 apps in the iOS store alone, competition is fierce. It is unlikely that you will be able to easily differentiate your app and even if you do, users will find it hard to find your app. Compared to the power of web search engines (such as Google) most app stores provide woefully inadequate search facilities for finding the app you need. Where once being in an app store gave you increased exposure, these days it is more of a hindrance than a benefit.

Users have also become a lot more fussy about what they install on their phones. With limited space they only install apps that they intend to use on a regular basis. While you might like to think your app is going to include ‘must have’ content, users probably will not agree.

The problem is we believe our content more valuable than it is. Often users will happily go to a competitor if they make things easier. It is not unusual for a user to be unwilling to download and install an app – which they will then have to uninstall after they complete their transaction.

Increasingly, users are looking to ‘use and lose’ your app. They want to access the content, make a purchase or complete a task and then move on without cluttering their phone.

But the problem with native apps is not just limited to the user. They present problems to the business owner too. Native apps are expensive to develop when compared to web apps. With the web you are developing for a single platform, while native apps have multiple platforms – iOS, Android, Windows mobile etc.

To make matters worse, the ground is constantly shifting. You may build an app today but there is no guarantee it will work tomorrow when the mobile phone companies update their software, hardware or rules surrounding app store submission. For example what happens when Apple release a new smaller iPad?

With so many flaws native apps have a relatively niche use case. Web apps offer a lot more potential especially when looking to the future. There are several approaches to building web apps. However, the one that holds the most potential is something called responsive design.

A responsive website is one that adapts to whatever device it is being viewed upon. In other words the same website will work quite happily on a laptop, netbook, iPad, iPhone, Android phone or even a yet to be invented device.

The way this is achieved is through basic web technologies (HTML and CSS). As the website resizes it changes its design and layout to best suit the available screen size. The best way to understand the approach is to see for yourself.

Visit my site at and start resizing the browser window. As you make the window smaller you will see the design adapt. Now look at it on a mobile phone or iPad. Again the design adapts to look as good as possible on that device.

This approach offers a number of benefits:

• It is cheaper to implement. Compared to a native app this approach is much cheaper especially when you consider it works across all major mobile operating systems.

• It can be retrofitted onto existing websites. It is possible to add some responsive elements to any website without the need to rebuild the site from scratch. Although sites built with responsiveness in mind from the outset will work better, there is still a lot that can be done with existing websites.

• You only need to build once. Instead of having multiple code bases to build and maintain, you build once for all devices whether a laptop or a mobile phone. This dramatically reduces ongoing maintenance costs.

• It supports emerging devices. Because responsive design is built on web technology you can be sure it will work with any future device that comes on the market. It can even adapt to new screen sizes and resolutions.

Although I can understand business owners’ desire to develop native apps because of the amount of buzz surrounding them, we know from past experience that the web is ultimately the way to go.

We just need to look at what has happened with desktop software. Recently we have seen a move away from desktop applications towards web apps. Where once we used a local email client we now use gmail. Where once we stored files locally they are now stored in the cloud. This move happened as technology and bandwidth improved.

We are seeing the same thing with mobile. 3G is widespread and 4G is on its way. On top of this we are seeing improvements in offline storage for web apps. When you consider all of this the move to mobile app seems inevitable.

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