Mobile Sites vs. Mobile Apps: How HTML5 Changes the Math

Mobile Sites vs. Mobile Apps: How HTML5 Changes the Math

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Mobile Sites vs. Mobile Apps: How HTML5 Changes the Math

Written by Jacob Litke

In the mobile world, “age old” questions are those we’ve been asking for the last couple of years, like whether to build a mobile app or a Web site. Now, there’s no question that HTML5 is changing the mobile landscape. Functionality that used to be accessible only through apps is increasingly coming to browsers. Some think this will eliminate the need and the rationale for apps; others argue that apps still retain key advantages, such as the richest possible user experience, discovery through app stores, and total control over branding and look-and-feel.

So how do you sort through the pros and cons – and how has HTML5 thrown in a new wrench? Start with a hard look at not only the kind of experience you want to provide your customer base, but at what kind of budgets and resources you have to throw behind your efforts.

Product development and iteration

If money is a top concern, and it’s possible to accomplish what you want  in a modern mobile browser, a mobile site is probably the way to go. Native apps will generally be more expensive both to build and to maintain. To begin with, there’s the need to port for multiple operating systems and devices, often by different teams or agencies, since few handle all platforms equally well. Without actually enhancing the app itself, these efforts will drain resources that could otherwise go toward polishing the user experience provided through a browser, or offering more complete features and more interesting products. Updates are also more costly and time-consuming, requiring development and testing across multiple platforms as well as approval through multiple app stores.

Enter the hybrid approach

With a fully native app, each new release must be ported across multiple devices and operating systems, approved through the app store and downloaded by customers, introducing friction every step of the way.

There are now some great tools for developing mobile sites and applications at the same time, literally. This means your product is accessible to mobile Web users and app store shoppers. If you create your site in HTML5, there are a variety of both open source and commercial tools that will wrap that site with all of the code necessary to run natively, and be submitted to application stores such as iTunes and the Android marketplace. There are also HTML5 authoring tools that allow you to create sites using drag-and-drop interfaces with little to no programming involved. As with all authoring tools, there are going to be some limitations over custom development, but these tools are progressing fast.

Further, with an HTML5-based app, as long as the wrapper stays the same, many product updates no longer require app store approval or customer downloads. These updates become as portable as an update to an HTML5 site. This is especially useful for companies who need to be able to make frequent changes to their app without bugging customers with endless product updates. Netflix, for example, performs constant A/B testing, adding and refining recommendations on an ongoing basis.

The shape of things to come

HTML5 is already having a huge impact, providing an alternative to the platform limitations of Flash and the functional limitations of HTML. YouTube already guides smartphone Web visitors to install a home screen shortcut to its mobile site rather than use the pre-installed YouTube application because it can provide a better user experience through the browser. We work with household brands that are seeing 80-90% of all mobile Web traffic to their sites coming from devices that support most of the key HTML5 features you would need to create a compelling user experience.

Whichever you decide, it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, much of your success will always come down to execution. Large companies with extensive resources can still produce mediocre products, and small independent development teams continue to create amazing products that are very successful. Cost control can be equally platform-independent: a poorly managed mobile site initiative can burn through astonishing development resources, while even an elegant and compelling mobile app can be developed efficiently.

The moral of the story? Take nothing for granted, make the right decisions for your business, do your best work and the rest will follow.

Jacob Litke is Director of Innovation at Velti.

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