Mobility

Why an app-focused strategy could lead to mobile failure

Forrester gets it almost right on the native app vs. mobile web debate. But, 'good enough' isn't good enough when it comes to mobile.

Image: iStockphoto/LDProd

Sure, consumers spend upwards of 90% of their mobile lives in apps, but charting an app-only approach to mobile transformation is shortsighted and counterproductive, as a new Forrester report uncovers. For, as the report authors conclude, "[L]ooking at mobile development as native versus web is a false choice; there are several shades of gray in between."

Which "shade" an enterprise chooses depends entirely on what they're trying to accomplish.

SEE: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) Policy Template (Tech Pro Research)

Inside or outside the firewall?

Though React Native, AngularJS, and other JavaScript frameworks for building web apps are starting to challenge this notion, in general native development yields the best app experiences. Tailoring native code to the APIs of a specific OS gives the developer deep control over the resultant experience.

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Native apps, however, come with a cost: According to Forrester, porting that lovely Android app "adds a 50% to 70% increment of the cost of the original app for every new mobile operating system an app needs to run on."

In other words, catering to consumers with a rich, interactive experience isn't cheap.

Nor is it always necessary. For example, for enterprise apps, where reuse (and easy updating) of content and leveraging existing web skills may be primary considerations, turning to web apps may be the exact right strategy. Given these and other considerations, it's not surprising that web technologies are a constant staple with mobile developers:

appstudy1.jpg

To be clear, these developers are using the web both for consumer-facing apps and employee-facing enterprise apps. The question, as Forrester highlights, is exactly what you're trying to accomplish.

You can't save your way to mobile excellence

If all the web offered was a cheaper way to develop apps, that would be a truly terrible reason to embrace it. What good is a cheap app that delivers a bad experience and doesn't get used, whether for employees or consumers?

The mobile experience is being defined by mobile-first apps like Uber, which leaves no one with an excuse for building shoddy apps, whether a developer trying to build a business in the App Store or an IT department just trying to get healthcare benefits information packaged in a mobile format.

No, the reason to embrace the web is to improve a user's experience, not make life easier on lazy developers.

As I've written, some businesses simply don't require the types of engagement native apps can offer. But more often than not, mobile development is a matter of native and web, not one or the other.

Hence, enterprises should look at a blend of native and web projects. For example, one large US retailer with which I spoke uses an optimized web experience to pull in casual shoppers, a true "top of the funnel" experience, as venture capitalist Fred Wilson calls it. For its most dedicated customers, it has an app (actually, two) to give in-store directions, scan bar codes for detailed information, and more.

Another entertainment company that I spoke to recently needs to update its content constantly—on a daily or even hourly basis—and is the sort of business that visitors use on an infrequent basis. They, therefore, have invested heavily in an optimized web experience that gives them full control over that ever-changing content, plus using apps for more casual (but constant) engagement, like games.

Good enough...isn't

This is where I diverge from Forrester's assessment of mobile development. The report concludes that "[M]ore and more developers will experiment with web and cross-platform

tools in 2016 and beyond," which is true. But, the reason is wrong: "They will find that they can achieve 'good enough' results, and pure native mobile development will yield to cross-platform development in particular."

SEE: Mobile vs. desktop apps: Performance, not parity (ZDNet)

In a world gone mobile, where the first impression a consumer (or employee) will have with your brand is a mobile one, it's not sufficient to deliver "good enough" mobile experiences. They must be exceptional, or your business is history.

Smart developers recognize this and know that, rather than using the web as a poor excuse for an app, they use the web to complement the app experience, or vice versa. The "how" of doing so depends on the particular business, but the target always needs to be an exceptional user experience, in native apps or on the web (or in between).

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    About

    Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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