When we slid into the mobile app game everyone was still trying to figure out the best solution (hey, it’s an evolving sport even today). Since then my company has built native apps, HTML5 apps, shell apps, responsive websites, mobile sites that compliment the full site.
It’s funny when you start to talk mobile strategy—seems like everyone has a really strong opinion. I was talking to someone the other day that was so anti-native and so pro-HTML5 I could barely get a word in edgewise.
Our really strong opinion is that you have to choose the right strategy for the project, no reason to put a stake in the ground and declare your position across the board.
Different Mobile Strategies Explained
Let’s look at what we’re talking about here:
- Native App: An app built to run on a specific platform (iOS which runs on iPhone/iPad/iPod, Android, Windows Phone).
- Pros: Works really well on the specific device; can access device features like the camera, contacts and email; can work offline; is easy for users to get from an app store; easy to charge money for the app.
- Cons: Expensive to build; has to be redesigned slightly and redeveloped completely for additional platforms.
- HTML5 App: Also called a web app, uses new web technology (HTML5, CSS3, jQuery) to produce a product that looks and functions almost identically to a native app.
- Pros: Design and develop once to hit every platform, even the ones with smaller market shares like BlackBerry; can be developed by a traditional web developer instead of finding a specialist; easy to push updates anytime; best bang for the buck if you can sacrifice certain features.
- Cons: Difficult to charge money for; some users will have a difficult time “installing” it (saving it to their devices homescreen); cannot access some device features; can be slower than a native app.
- Shell App: An app that uses HTML5 or another kind of programming language that is then wrapped with a piece of software (PhoneGap, Appcelorator) to function like a native app and be released via the app stores.
- Pros: Develop one app and release on multiple platforms.
- Cons: Hybrid apps don’t always look right cross platform—iOS has very specific design patterns that are different from Android and vis versa; many developers find they spend as much time trying to learn yet another system as it would take to do it natively; many people find that they are just not quite right. As of yet, this isn’t a course we recommend taking, although it has a lot of promise.
- Responsive Website: A website that changes layout depending on what device you use. The website uses the same HTML5 code and then controls the display with CSS3.
- Pros: Works well on a variety of devices and platforms; the only strategy presented that includes a view for a traditional desktop/laptop as well as mobile and tablet; easy to keep all views in sync so there is only one place to update code.
- Cons: Can be expensive to build if it’s not truly needed (some designers/developers are pushing for always including a responsive site—great idea if your client has the budget); needs to be really well thought through to decide what is dropped on the mobile view versus the desktop view to make sure each experience is complete and not just a crummy fail over.
- Separate Mobile Site: A site that compliments the regular website, but is developed to be completely separate.
- Pros: Works exactly as intended on the mobile view; can be designed/developed to use the same content as the main site (so there aren’t multiple places to update things); can be a cheap and easy add on to an existing website without touching the current code.
- Cons: Even though you can use the same content, it’s a different set of code so if something major (like the logo) changes it will need to be updated in multiple places; it is not as complete in the information as the complete site and often includes a “view full site” button.
Different Mobile Strategies in Action
We built this app natively for Boart Longyear. Why: This app is used on tradeshow floors where there often isn’t internet available; the app connects to the device’s camera to scan codes and pull up the related information.
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We built this app using HTML5 for Boart Longyear’s Drillers Connect. Why: This app is used all over the world, most workers in the field will use an Android or iPhone to access the information, but some will look it up on a desktop.
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Despite our best efforts to use Dreamweaver/PhoneGap we just cannot get an app to come out and install on the other side.
We built this website to be fully responsive. Why: Each view had to have full access to the entire site. Many people search for their next job while on their lunch break at their current job, and they do with a mobile/tablet device. To include the same information on something as small as a phone or tablet we shortened the logo and introduced alternate navigation.
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Separate Mobile Site
We added this site onto the current Chow Truck website, we also have two more of these in the works. Why: There are very few businesses that we would recommend doing this for — but a restaurant, especially one that is in a different place every day—is going to see the most traffic from mobile phones. When you are in the car, on your phone there are very few things you want to know: where the place is, if they are open and what’s on the menu. About us, history, news, awards, etc are not as urgently important. Plus, we’ve recently learned that Open Table strongly encourages restaurants to have a mobile site and menu.
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The Future of Mobile Strategies
Mobile strategies are evolving quickly. We look forward to the day that a shell app or good HTML5 to native wrapper works well, native apps are expensive—but in the right light give the proper ROI (anyone else taken out a second mortgage to support a Candy Crush habit?). We were fully onboard thinking that everyone needs a responsive component, but then we looked at the additional design/development and realized a lot of smaller clients are good with a single target site—as long as that site still works on a mobile it doesn’t have to exactly fit the mobile.
What are your experiences, either as a consumer or site owner with different mobile strategies?