It’s a hot debate, and one that will probably last quite some time: Should you build a mobile application for your products or is a mobile-enabled website the best way to go?
As a software development company with a fairly sizable customer base, we’ve been asked several times what our particular mobile strategy is, which direction we’re going with our products and why we’ve chosen one route over the other. While I doubt the direction will be much of a surprise to anyone –after all, we DO focus our products on the Web versus native, installable clients like some of our competitors–I still wanted to give a few reasons why we’re focusing on the mobile Web versus building mobile apps.
1. Less Platform Headaches
It’s no secret that creating an interface for mobile browsers is easier than having to create different versions of the same app for iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, etc. Indeed, with the fragmentation currently seen within Android, we’d possibly even have to create and manage different apps based on the various flavors of Android currently in use. And let’s not forget managing apps that run on phones versus tablet. Has anyone run an iPhone app on an iPad with the “2x” modifier enabled? While some apps can pull it off, most can’t.
As an added incentive, we recently noticed that over 50% of our site traffic, and an increasing number of new product purchases, are coming from overseas. That means an even greater number of mobile devices and operating systems to support with an app (even with Nokia partnering with Microsoft for Nokia’s next generation of phones). Using a mobile browser interface means that growing customer base has unfettered access to our products. Accommodating different mobile browsers is less time consuming than building for a mobile OS, and therefore we will have an easier time reaching the largest number of potential and existing customers.
2. The Technology is Here
In the past it was a given that a mobile app would provide a better user experience than a mobile browser-based site. Anyone remember building WAP sites? Ugh… Now, however, the technology is here for building robust, engaging and beautiful browser-based sites and applications. With advances such as HTML5 for developing apps and advances in mobile browsers for displaying apps, users can get at least as good an experience on a tablet or mobile phone as they can on a desktop.
3. More Seamless Experience for Users
While it’s possible to create an app that “looks” like your Web-based product, the experience is generally going to be different due to the app creation process. If the product was built to use a browser, keeping it in the browser is more likely to present end users with a seamless experience. With the upcoming SmarterTrack 7.x BETA, customers will get their first look at how we’ve managed to streamline the mobile experience: we cut out a lot of “excess baggage” in terms of code so the browsing experience is faster. In addition, the look and feel of the interface is almost exactly the same as you get using a desktop browser–there are some changes for specific circumstances (like scrolling panes for tablet navigation, etc.) but the overall experience is mirrored across devices, both mobile and desktop.
4. Less IT Involvement
This is possibly a point best suited to the enterprise, but keeping your application in the browser means less involvement from IT to ensure standards are in place across the wide variety of mobile devices being used within an organization. Installing applications generally means involvement from IT–either in a support capacity or actually physically installing the app if the organization is particularly hands-on. With a browser-based system there’s no need for IT staff to manage the process. In addition, product updates and new releases are much easier to manage when an IT team only has to update a centralized location versus ensuring all users with mobile phones, tablets and the likes have the proper patches and updates installed. This is why the enterprise loves our products: From the IT side of things, the same basic rules apply for desktops and laptops as for mobile devices when you deal with browser-based products and from the management side, browser-based products help keep IT costs low.
5. Flexibility Across Products
We have three products that are built around the browser: SmarterMail, SmarterTrack and SmarterStats. We were lucky in that we built all three products very similarly, so creating a mobile browser interface for one product means it can be distributed across the other products with minimal effort. As each product behaves differently (i.e., they have different functions) this wouldn’t be possible if we created apps for each–they’d each have to be developed individually. By keeping our focus on the browser, regardless of whether it’s a mobile browser or not, we maximize our efficiency and emphasize the user experience.
6. The Browser is Our Domain
As I mentioned above, SmarterTools is a company that builds for the browser. When we started (almost 10 years ago…wow) we could have easily built desktop applications for Linux and Windows like most of our competitors. Looking back it was almost like we were ahead of the game and had a clear vision of the future. By starting in the browser we are able to more easily adapt to the changing landscape, like today with the move toward mobility. Each and every one of our products runs in a browser, whether it’s on a desktop, server or on an iPad, Xoom, Galaxy S, iPhone, Droid or BlackBerry. By building our products for the browser, we feel it’s the best way for us to reach the maximum number of current, and potential, users and to ensure that their experience is as seamless as possible. We honestly believe we can provide customers with as good of an experience in a browser as we could if we build desktop or mobile apps. Besides, why shift away from something you’ve been successful at for almost 10 years?
That’s pretty much it. There’s no doubt that mobile is a direction we all should be going. The good news is that SmarterTools built our products in such a way that transitioning them to become even more mobile-ready is a fairly simple task. In the end, and if you’ll forgive a bit of opinionated prognosticating, I believe in the war for the mobile user the Web will win out over native applications. Mobile apps will always have their place, but until such time as you can quickly and easily build out an applications that will seamlessly install across a variety of mobile devices regardless of OS (much less version of OS), building for the mobile browser is just the most logical way to go.
So, what about you? What are your thoughts on the rise of mobile computing and whether it’s wiser to build mobile apps or build for the mobile Web? We’re curious to know, so leave a comment and have your say…
This post was written by Derek C., vice-president of marketing and communications for SmarterTools. If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to the SmarterTools Blog so you don’t miss an update.