Delivering Great Mobile Experiences — The App vs. Web Debate by Paul Bevan


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A simple, concise, and business-friendly summary of the different mobile delivery mechanisms currently available, along with some guidance on how to pick the optimal solution for your situation.

Point Of View by Paul Bevan, Mobile Strategist

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Delivering Great Mobile Experiences — The App vs. Web Debate by Paul Bevan

  1. 1. POINT OF viewDelivering Great Mobile Experiences —The App vs. Web DebatePaul Bevan, Mobile Strategist Customers are demanding more and more great mobile experiences on phones and tablets. To meet this need, brands continue to look for guidance on how to best deliver these experiences, whether through the web or apps. The web versus app debate is a long-lasting and confusing topic, and is exacerbated by rapid changes in technology, baffling terminology, and a plethora of options. I want to provide a simple, concise, and business-friendly summary of the different delivery mechanisms currently available, along with some guidance on how to pick the optimal solution for your situation. I hope to not only inform you about this topic, but to also afford you the freedom to stop focusing on technology considerations in early conversations. This will free you up to concentrate on the business problem and create a valuable mobile service for your customers. MOBILE DELIVERY OPTIONS I will focus on four mechanisms for delivering branded mobile experiences: 1. Mobile web 2. Native apps 3. Web apps 4. Hybrid apps Mobile web Mobile websites are simply websites that are accessed via a browser on a mobile device and delivered to the user in a mobile friendly way. They can be created in a variety of ways including transcoders, Software as a Service (SAAS), CSS styling, and bespoke builds, with each having their own particular strengths and weaknesses. As mobile sites work cross-platform, and on both smartphones and feature phones, everyone with an Internet-enabled phone and a data plan can access them. Cost to build and maintain mobile websites can vary widely, but due to their reach they are a low-cost method in terms of cost per potential viewer. The transcoder option in particular provides a fast, inexpensive way that has been very popular with retail, content, and travel brands in the last few years. And like any web option, maintenance is relatively easy with no need for app store submissions. Access is also easy from the user perspective and is as simple as typing a URL, doing a search, or accessing a book-marked icon from the handset. IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  2. 2. POINT OF viewThe key downside of mobile websites is that the richness of the experience is not as high comparedto the other options. Aspects of this experience include page load speeds, responsiveness, limitedrange of gestural interaction, access to phones features, and ability to work offline. There are alsotwo specific points to note about transcoders. Firstly, they can cause painful dependencies on dotcominfrastructure. Secondly, they are often the least optimized user experience as they are typically asubset of what is on dotcom instead of being a truly optimized or enhanced experience. As such, brandsthat use transcoded solutions for quick time-to-market presence often wean off of this approach whenevolving their mobile experience offering.Overall, mobile websites’ strengths lie in their ability to offer a reasonable (and growing) level ofexperience to a wide audience, by offering the bulk of the content and basic transactional functionalitiesthe web has to offer for smartphones and tablets. A good example of a strong mobile website is BestBuy, as illustrated below.        Native appsAt the other end of the spectrum sit native apps. These are specific to a platform (e.g., iOS, Android)and are downloaded from stores such as the Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace. The largemajority of the code and assets for these apps reside on the phone, but often interact with the webthrough service requests.The key strengths for native apps lie in the richness of the experience. Despite the much-laudedrise of HTML5, the current situation is that native apps provide the richest experience, especially indemanding environments such as immersive games. This rich experience comes in the form of thesophisticated gestural interfaces, instantaneous user interface response times, offline capability, andfull integration with all of the phone’s features including the camera, GPS, accelerometer, chips, andNFC. One consequence of this is that general market statistics suggest that native apps currentlyconvert 30% more effectively than web for commerce. Marketers have taken an early liking to creatingbranded apps that showcase unique ways to interact with the brand. However, many have also failedwith experiences that don’t pose enough differentiation to stand out in the app store or lack theinherent value for the consumers to make the effort to install and use.The presence on an app store (especially Apple’s) can provide a real advantage. Many consumers starttheir search and browse for a mobile experience in the app store. The dashboard of categories, filters,and search provides a powerful resource for consumers to find a specific mobile application that servestheir need and/or enables them to simply stumble upon something that looks interesting. Visibilityand promotional value can also get amplified if the app has great feedback or is actively promoted as“recommended” or “most popular.” Gaining visibility on the app store is often a case of marketing,timing, and the follow-on headwind of being on the front page. For each of these positive app storeconsiderations, it is also important to be wary of potential risks. While they can benefit from findability,the size and number of stores can result in apps getting swamped and lost. It is also important to notethat some consumers still prefer the web for finding mobile experiences, especially where data rates IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  3. 3. POINT OF vieware high such as in Brazil. Finally, the noted pedestal effect can have a negative impact if customerreviews are poor and easily viewed.The clear-cut downside of native apps is that they are platform specific. A single platform deploymenttherefore limits your reach to people with a smartphone on the right platform and potentially on theright version of the platform operating system. There are currently six major platforms in the market— iOS, Android, RIM, Microsoft, Bada (Samsung’s newest foray into the market), and Symbian (nowtransitioning to Windows, but with a great amount of current marketshare). These platforms haveconstantly evolving operating systems, and so brands need to carefully consider which platforms theywant to use, as producing and maintaining experiences across all platforms is expensive and complex.To address this, brands need to focus on those platforms that deliver return for both the business andtheir customers. Many service and software firms have also built frameworks and authoring suitesthat provide various efficiencies and successes. Frameworks including Adobe AIR, Kony Solutions, NetBiscuits, PhoneGap, and Sencha Touch are all now competing in this space, and we continue to monitortheir progress. It is certainly the case that if they do succeed in lowering costs of producing cross-platform native apps, a rebalancing in the debate will once again take place.The final consideration for native apps is that app store owners act as gatekeepers. Apple in particularis strict with their app submission process, which includes rules on sharing data and a 30% cut of allrevenue. On the flip side however, tight gatekeeping has led to a higher quality of iOS apps compared tothe more open Android market.Overall, native apps are great for customers looking for mobile experiences from app stores, and alsoprovide the fastest, slickest experiences with the fullest functionalities. A hugely popular example isAngry Birds, as illustrated below.    Web appsLike mobile websites, mobile web apps are accessed via the browser, but they also have someimportant differences. For a mobile website, each time a new page is accessed, the device willdownload all of the page contents (including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and data). For a web app, themajority of the download occurs on the initial visit and is stored locally. After this, only data is accessedfrom the web. This may sound like techno-babble, but it has some important real world impacts.At a high level, web apps sit between native apps and mobile websites in terms of key factors such asreach and experience.Whilst some tailoring is needed to optimize the experience across platforms, in general, web apps workon all new smartphones. This means that cost to build and maintain experiences on multiple platformsis typically lower than a native approach that requires separate designs and builds per platform. Andlike mobile sites, updates are easy for users and publishers alike, with no need for submissions orapprovals from app stores. IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  4. 4. POINT OF viewThe web app tech approach and developments in HTML5 have also led to a richer and faster experiencecompared to standard websites. The experience is so good that it is quickly closing the gap with nativeapps. However at present, there is still a gap in terms of responsiveness and access to certain phonefeatures such as the camera. In some situations this gap is negligible, but for older platform versionsand certain demanding environments, such as games, it is still there. The other downside, especiallywhen compared to mobile websites, is that the initial download is quite large. This typically requires agood connection — ideally WiFi — and can put off some people from downloading the app.Overall, web apps provide good experiences across multiple platforms, but still do not meet the fullrichness of native solutions in demanding environments. A good example is YouTube, which used to beserved as a native app, but is now pushed by Google as a web app, as illustrated below.        Hybrid appsFrom a user point of view, hybrid apps appear just like a native app and are downloaded from appstores. However, as the name suggests, they use a hybrid of native and web technologies. This iscommonly in the form of a thin native shell with web technology in the centre.Compared to native development, they are easy to build and maintain across multiple platforms. Thisis due to the small amount of platform-specific native coding that is required and because the webpart of the app can be largely used cross-platform. This technological approach also makes it easierto convert to a 100% web experience if desired, as only small a amount of functionality is built natively.The experience delivered is rich and benefits from access to all of the phones’ native features throughthe native shell. The fact that both technologies are available means that native functionality can beused selectively where it provides most value, enabling great balance between cross-platform flexibilityand richness. Hybrid apps are easy to maintain for users, as they see updates right away thanks to theweb technology. Only changes to native code would require resubmission to app stores. Finally, hybridapps benefit from being able to go onto app stores and benefit from a smaller download size. The onlynote of caution is to ensure certain rules are met as Apple in particular has been denying hybrid appsthat offer no further value than the mobile website.Overall, hybrid apps are gaining popularity as they benefit from the best of the web and native worlds.A good example of a hybrid app is the Facebook app, as illustrated below.       IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  5. 5. POINT OF viewTEXT TEXTWhilst we will not consider texts in detail in this document, this mechanism is well worthy ofworthynote. Whilst we will not consider texts in detail in this document, this mechanism is well a short of ashort SMS and MMS areand MMS are still the largest safety net for reaching consumers with basic Both note. Both SMS still the largest safety net for reaching consumers with basic messaging andmessaging and simple transactions. SMS is still the reaching the massesof reaching the masses simple transactions. SMS is still the preferred method of preferred method especially in developingespecially in developing countries where smartphone penetration and/or data plan adoption is countries where smartphone penetration and/or data plan adoption is low. Despite being basic, andlow. Despite being basic, and somewhat crude, SMS provides a low cost and high reach approach, somewhat crude, SMS provides a low cost and high reach approach, helping to produce some great ROI,helping to produce some great ROI, especially in opt-in marketing, campaign integration, and especially in opt-in marketing, campaign integration, and aspects of banking.aspects of banking. MOVING FORWARD As you have seen, there are many delivery options out there, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but which one is right for you? I recommend you employ a strategic approach and look for key trends in key industry segments. Strategic approach Now that you have a good understanding of the technology options, it is important to focus on the customer and business aspects of your mobile experience. From a customer point of view, ask yourself: Who is the target audience? What phones do they use? Do they go to app stores? What are their mobile needs? What valuable experiences can be created? From a business point of view, ask yourself: What are the key drivers for this mobile experience (e.g., brand engagement, drive to in-store traffic, incremental revenue)? To what degree should you build or buy? How is the business case justified? Once you have a handle on these questions, the most optimal delivery option (or options) will become apparent. And remember, choosing the best delivery mechanism is not a decision to be made in isolation. An 18-month mobile roadmap will give you the strategic view necessary to choose the best technology that will create the desired and seamless multi-channel experience. INDUSTRY CONSIDERATIONS It is always valuable to look at trends occurring in various industry segments and learn from how others are tackling the app versus web debate. The number of variables in business means that no two situations are ever the same and there is no one right answer, but nevertheless, these scenarios can help provide a useful steer. Retail Retail is currently the hottest area for mobile innovation and growth, as customers are showing their desire to research products both in-store and out-of-store, share information, take advantage of couponing, and transact through mobile devices. A good example of a retailer using a full array of delivery mechanisms is Target in the U.S. They have a mobile website to gain maximum reach, especially for non-smartphone users. In addition, they have rich native apps for the iPhone and Android that can be accessed either directly through app stores, via a link on the mobile website, or through a text message, which provides easy findability. These native apps provide slicker experiences, and enable functions such as scanning of barcodes that a mobile site could not do. There is also an iPad app that provides a unique shopping experience that best leverages the increased size of the screen. It is important to note that across all these different mechanisms the look and feel stays constant, helping the customer to have a common brand experience regardless of how they interact in the digital space. IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  6. 6. POINT OF view MOBILE WEB NATIVE (Phone) NATIVE (iPad)        ContentAnother interesting scenario is in content and publishing. Apple’s strict submission process hasencouraged many publishers to pursue an HTML5 web app approach. This includes many mainstreampublishers including the Financial Times whose new web app has led to more customers and increasedpages viewed per session compared to the old iOS version.Similar to the Target example, the consumer is again given the option of a standard mobile experienceor a richer experience when they first enter the site — with Target this was a native app and for theFinancial Times it was a web app. In both cases the customer is asked to put effort in, and is rewardedwith a better experience. MOBILE WEB WEB APP        Financial ServicesFinancial services is another area that is investing heavily in mobile right now. Many of the large banksuse the full arsenal of delivery mechanisms, both to ensure the best experience for their currentcustomers and to acquire new customers through marketing.Bank of America, for example, provides a mobile website for basic banking, text banking for quickfunctions such as balance enquiries, and hybrid apps providing rich, personalized experiences. Thehybrid approach allows for Bank of America to easily operate across multiple platforms, as can beseen by the huge number of platforms supported — iOS (iPhone and iPad), Windows, RIM, Palm, andAndroid — allowing them to provide a rich app experience for their broad target audience.This heavy investment across delivery mechanisms can only be justified because of the hugeimportance of mobile to their business and the huge variety of users within their target group. Forthese companies, “and” (not “or”) is the key word as they continually look to meet the needs of thecustomer and use technology to provide the best experiences to the broadest reach of people. IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012
  7. 7. POINT OF view MOBILE WEB TEXT HYBRID APP       CONCLUSION We have seen that there are a range of delivery options available, and that each have their pros and cons. This is summarised in the table below. (High, Medium, Low) There is no silver bullet to the web versus app debate. The optimal delivery mechanism depends on your customer, the business needs, and the experience you want to deliver. However, more and more the answer is not app or web, it is app AND web. I hope this paper has given you a primer on the landscape and also removed some of the confusion. I also hope it will allow you to take the initial steps in choosing the mechanism(s) to deliver a mobile experience in the optimal way. And since mobile is changing fast, an approach of build and learn is essential. One retail VP said it best in a recent interview: “It’s progress over perfection.”ABOUT THE Author Paul Bevan is based in the Sapient London office and is a specialist in the mobile space. He has worked on an array of mobile projects over the last 4 years in both a strategy and project management capacity. Key clients have included Ladbrokes, HSBC, Vodafone, and John Lewis. Paul is passionate about the exciting and unique role that mobile can play in a multi-channel context — bringing value to customers where and when they most want it. IDEA ENGINEERS © Sapient Corporation 2012