Apps are hot, but don't forget the mobile Web

When you're looking at your company's mobile strategy, don't underestimate the value of the mobile Web as a viable platform to reach your customers.

Apps are the hottest thing in mobile right now. There are almost 200,000 apps available across the biggest app platforms (iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry) and a study by Chetan Sharma Consulting projects app downloads to hit 50 billion by 2012 (which is up from 7 billion in 2009).

Despite the buzz and the projected growth, the audience for apps still pales in comparison to the audience of the mobile Web. Smartphones still only account for about 17% of the mobile phone market. And when you look at all of the mobile devices on the market at the end of 2009, Apple didn't even crack the top five device makers in terms of market share according to comScore MobiLens. Even with all of the growth in the smartphone market, Nielsen projects that smartphones won't achieve 50% market share until 2011.

Projections for smartphone market share

Click the image to enlarge.

So if you're looking at your company's mobile strategy, you shouldn't underestimate the value of the mobile Web as a viable platform to reach your customers. Many of the newer feature phones (the term the mobile industry uses to describe non-smartphones) require a data plan, so many users who would have never opted in to the mobile Web now have it on their handsets by default. These users can't run apps, but they can access the Web via their phone's browser.

And if you look at comScore's MobiLens numbers from January 2010, more mobile users accessed their handset's browser (28.6%) than used downloaded apps (19.8%). If you compare how those two numbers changed from October 2009 to January 2010, you see that the growth in browser usage (up 1.8 points) outpaced the growth in usage of downloaded apps (up 1.5 points).

When to use the mobile Web

Your mobile Web site can be the foundation for your overall mobile platform. Not only can it be accessed via feature phone browsers, but it can also be pulled into your smartphone apps as a Web view when needed. So having a strong mobile Web site lets you reach the majority of mobile users who don't have a smartphone, but it can also make mobile app development easier across platforms.

For example, if you developed a login function on your mobile Web site for your customers to access their online account via their mobile handset, that same login can be pulled into your iPhone and Android apps, which means you don't have to rebuild it for each app.

These are the pros and the cons of the mobile Web:
  • Pros: Supports feature phones and smartphones; works across mobile platforms; cheaper than developing separate apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry; likely supports the majority of things that customers or prospective customers will do on a mobile handset.
  • Cons: Can't take advantage of advanced phone features like GPS or camera; limited visually and functionally to what your mobile browser can do.

When to use a mobile app

So if the mobile Web is so great, where do apps fit in? Apps are great for doing things that the mobile Web can't do or for using the unique capabilities of the handset. For example, if you want to incorporate the handset's camera, accelerometer, or GPS, an app is the better choice.

These are the pros and the cons of mobile apps:
  • Pros: Supports all native functions of the handset including GPS, camera, accelerometer; tailored to the operating system of the handset.
  • Cons: Requires extra development work to support all major mobile operating systems.

The bottom line

While it might not be as sexy as having an app, having a solid mobile Web site can deliver value to feature phone and smartphone users alike. It can stand alone as a resource for your customers and serve as the backend for more specialized mobile applications.

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