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The mobile app debate: Web or native

Filed under: All Articles > Industry News
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By: NMK Created on: April 23rd, 2012
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As mobile internet access continues to widen its reach, the dilemma for marketers has become whether to create web apps or ‘native’ apps designed for specific devices. New Media Knowledge met up with an industry specialist to weigh them up. By Chris Lee.

By Chris Lee

The rapid expansion of the mobile industry has made apps an essential avenue for marketing the modern business and apps have become the go-to for consumers and businesses. This is the view of Nick Barnett, CEO of app developer Mippin, who believes that with the evolution of app technology comes a choice – native or web?

Global Intelligence Alliance defines a native app as one that is ‘specifically designed to run on a device’s operating system and machine firmware, and typically needs to be adapted for different devices.’

In contrast, a web app is one in which all or some parts of the software are downloaded from the web each time it is run. It can usually be accessed from all web-capable mobile devices. As the technology behind web apps has dramatically improved to level that of some native apps, Barnett argues that marketers are frequently left asking native or web?

Technological advances

With recent advances in technology, the difference between web apps and native apps from a technical standpoint is increasingly irrelevant, Barnett told NMK.

“The success of apps like the FT web app in HTML5 [an Internet coding system] shows that consumers care more about the content than the underlying tech,” Barnett said. “As technology is no longer the key deciding factor, it is less about the choice of technologies used to build the apps, but more about the choices in how apps are to be distributed.”

Native apps are normally found within an app store whereas web apps are accessed through a web browser’s URL, or via a QR code, or potentially soon from an NFC (near field communications) tag. In this sense, Barnett argues that a web app could potentially offer a bigger reach; but only if you have effective discoverability online through positive Google ratings and SEO (search engine optimisation), or offline through physical channels.

“Nowadays many people only search for app content within app stores so if the app is not listed, potential downloads, or even worse potential customers, will be missed. In an ideal world, having both a web and a native app would be the answer, but I know that this isn’t feasible for everyone,” Barnett said.

Return on app investment

So, if this isn’t possible, the basic question comes back to the expectation on return on investment. Barnett says this means considering the various distribution channels available and understanding which are important for your business.

“Take a hotel for example; if your business proposition is mostly based on customer acquisition – new customers rather than repeat trade – you probably want to be in an app store as your business model is biased towards new customers finding you,” he said. “Fundamentally, if your business requires discovery and distribution then you need to maximise your distribution options – be online, be in travel agents, be in hotel guides and have your app in an app store. However, if the focus of your business model is customer retention and return visits, discoverability is less of an issue, as the main focus is to engage with your existing customer base and increase repeat bookings. Therefore, you don’t need to be in an app store – a web app could be an ideal solution.”

Apps in action

For Barnett, a prime example of an incredibly successful web app is the FT, putting its success down to distribution via its existing customer base of subscribers and therefore does not need to be in an app store.

“The FT model also sparks debate around selling your app; specifically about how best to manage the share of revenues that may need to be paid out to an app store (the retailer), or not,” Barnett added. “If your aim is to sell your app, then you need a native app for customer ease of purchase. As the app stores already have the technology in place for customers to buy apps, selling a web app is more complicated and potentially less user-friendly. Developers would need to create a structure to capture and process online payments whether through a credit card or online system such as PayPal.”

What consumers want

Barnett believes that the technology discussion around web versus native is now irrelevant, as end users are happy using either or both. Instead, he argues, businesses need to decide on their motivation for developing an app, the distribution channels most appropriate for them and make their choice from that.

“So, the key consideration when making the decision to create an app is ‘what is your primary motive?’ Is it customer retention or customer acquisition?” Barnett concluded. “In simplified terms, a business that is in the process of acquiring new customers must have a native app to increase its discoverability. For a business more focused on customer retention and interaction, a web app may be a simpler and better option.”

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