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Rarely a mobile conference goes by without this debate popping up: Should you build a mobile website or an application? I don’t think it rea…

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Rarely a mobile conference goes by without this debate popping up: Should you build a mobile website or an application? I don’t think it really matters; in fact, I’d say it is irrelevant. This is just one of many topics where technology leads marketing by the nose–as is often the case in the mobile industry. Product strategists often forget to ask themselves the right questions: which product and services, for which audiences, at what cost, and when?

Consumer product strategists designing product experiences for mobile phones and smartphones must decide on their development priorities across the mobile Web and apps. While some believe this is a fundamental “either/or” choice, current consumer behavior suggests that consumers are using both. More than half of European consumers and 60 percent of U.S. consumers who download apps at least monthly also access the Internet via their mobile phones at least daily. In short, heavy app users are also heavy mobile Web users. The more frequently consumers access the Internet via their mobile phones, the more likely they are to download apps at least monthly. More than 10 billion apps have been downloaded cumulatively since the launch of the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) App Store–the majority of them via iPhones. But this doesn’t stop iPhone owners from being the most frequent mobile Internet users: 63 percent of U.S. iPhone owners and 72 percent of European iPhone owners access the mobile Internet on a daily basis.

The mobile Web and apps offer different benefits and serve different audiences. For now, mobile apps make the most of smartphone features because they integrate more deeply and more widely with the unique features of smart mobile devices that use an operating system. However, mobile websites cost less to reach a wider audience. The majority of consumers don’t own a smartphone and don’t access app stores; they are more likely to use a mobile browser and to access the Internet from their mobile phones. The barriers to accessing a site via a browser are lower than those to downloading an app–even for smartphone owners. Also, the fragmented nature of the mobile industry means that porting apps to different platform environments costs money–particularly when including maintenance and promotion costs.

I have covered this issue in more detail in a new Forrester report “Why The ‘Web Versus Application’ Debate Is Irrelevant To Your Mobile Product Strategy.”

Moving forward, both technologies will improve over time but will continue to coexist. Apps will benefit from mass-market smartphone penetration, but a majority of consumers across the globe will access the Internet, not apps. Mobile browsing technologies will improve significantly. Device-centric information like location increasingly can pass to the browser, while better user experiences and more rich-media-centric mobile websites are now available. HTML5 will greatly improve the audio and video capabilities of mobile browsers. However, it will be at least three years before the technology fully matures. It has to reach critical mass on consumers’ mobile handsets and in developers’ minds.

Improved browsing technologies will force apps to evolve. Too many existing apps fail to make the most of devices’ local features. In addition to talking to the local device, next-level apps should also talk to other apps through open APIs and interact with other devices. Apps will remain the best tools for engagement and will offer new business opportunities. Mobile apps currently present better opportunities for stronger engagement–not only because they offer richer services and experiences, but also because they place the brand icon on the user’s home screen. When coupled with a strong analytics tool, they also enable companies to better capture consumer behavior and even to develop more actionable CRM programs. Moving forward, apps will provide better experiences by improving their exploitation of context and will expand into new areas like medical care and home security.

While we expect browsers and apps to coexist on tablets and smartphones in the next three to five years, the rise of the application era will have implications for existing business models and will open up new opportunities. Mobile services will be one of many customer touchpoints. App innovation started on smartphones, but the concept of app stores will expand to other increasingly connected devices and platforms. Apps will become touchpoints for content services. They will have to work across all platforms–including mobile, TV, and the PC. No matter what the technology used–be it a traditional Internet website on a PC or a mobile app on a mobile device–consumers will expect a seamless, cross-channel user experience. The service will have to be contextualized depending on the device’s form factor and the location from which the user is using her connected device.

That’s the reason why you will need a new cross-platform approach to loyalty. In the multidevice, multiconnection world, product strategists need more than a good product with a connection to win customer loyalty–they need to create a digital customer relationship and deliver that in a continuously connected experience across many devices.

Thomas Husson is a Principal Analyst with Forrester Research serving Consumer Product Strategy professionals. He blogs at http://blogs.forrester.com/thomas_husson

This article originally appeared in Forrester.

  1. Have to disagree with this perspective. While it might not be the best thing to wage a battle over it is very important to select the right approach for the right audience. The mobile web is good for a few things right now. However the experience of mobile web differs vastly depending on what data plan you have, what carrier you use, the location you are in and of course what OS you are on. That’s not to say that one cant have a bad app experience with a poor connection but one thing must be true. Users have to be connected to the net or the mobile web experience is a bust.

    You even point out the differences in your article. This is a very important consideration right now. Especially if you don’t have a huge budget to handle a migration later.

    I agree you need a complete digital engagement strategy, but deciding to go mobile web or app on a project is going to be an important topic until the mobile web matures and we see several more browser revisions. In fact I would say that until APIs and cloud services can be directly fed into the OS/ Browser it will remain a hot issue.

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  2. Love this article! Another thing to keep in mind is that that blended apps, where its really a web page/app, but wrapped in a native app format are on the rise. This will end up blurring how much is really a web “site” versus a web “app” versus a “native” app.

    One thing to consider is that the maturity of web technologies is moving quite rapidly. For example, the group that I work as part of at Qualcomm have tuned the mobile browser JavaScript engines to be able to run really heavy websites/apps that simply couldn’t be done even 18 months ago. Similarly, Android 2.3 smartphones/tablets based on our Snapdragon processors will have support for in-page HTML 5 Video – just like the desktop! So the future is definitely heading here fast!

    Note these comments are my own and not specifically from Qualcomm.

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  3. You raise some interesting points, and I agree that there’s no single silver bullet that answers the mobile marketing question. Apps and mobile websites will continue to coexist and the most successful companies will find interesting and innovative ways to build multi-channel experiences.

    I have to disagree that the debate is irrelevant, though. Choosing the right mobile strategy is crucial to success. Companies don’t have unlimited budgets to support building an app that no one uses. Businesses looking to go mobile need to know who their audiences and customers are, what types of phones they use, and how they use them. It’d be a waste of money, time and effort to build an app for a platform that a company’s customers are not using.

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  4. This is a very interesting article. I think the challenge for mobile web vs mobile app, apart from technical, is the challenge of monitisation and ownership of control. There is a need for developing good mobile web app stores to distribute web app in a more accessible manner as opposed to them being scattered everywhere and hard to find. Mobile web apps also breaks up the strangle hold that a few powerful app stores and companies have on the app scene today. It is a political change, a power change, as much as a technological change.

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  5. Spot on in my view. 

    At the moment brands and publishers love aps because they give them room to experiment with their business models. They [aps] also provide a far superior experience for brands that need to provide a rich and immersive consumer experience. 

    However, the complexity (and cost!) of achieving cross platform compatibility and the growing problem of becoming ‘lost in the app store’ make apps a difficult proposition for many businesses. 
    I believe therefore that the market will ultimately move towards a cross channel, mobile web based experience that will be developed around HTML5 and open APIs. Apps will continue to have their place but I think they will look very different in two to three years’ time. 

    In many ways, I’m reminded of the days when brands used Flash to deliver a rich experience. As soon as HTML/Javascript became capable of delivering a better, cross browser experience that didn’t require a plugin, Flash websites were consigned to the bin! 

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