Mobile Strategy and the Future of the Web

Kevin Smith
by
on 24 April 2012

There is some really heated debate over the future of the web at the moment. From Sergy Brins latest warning on the rise of facebook and mobile apps, to the continuing battle over whether the cross platform, standards based nature of HTML5 will win out over the seemingly more costly but slick experience of the native app.

The most frustrating thing about this entire debate is that the majority of opinions you will hear are born out of fear and protectionism on both sides of the fence. People may talk about “the best user experience” or “open web” or “cost of development” but all of these arguments are way more complex than they seem. The real reason people are defending their positions is because they don’t want their existing skills, customer base, business model or previous investments to be rendered obsolete.

Open vs Closed

There is plenty of noise as to whether the future of the web should remain open (read: content can be accessed by anyone from anywhere and indexed by standard search engines). Facebook want it ‘kind of open’. They do confusing things like push for wide adoption of HTML as the app platform while at the same time creating a walled off, closed web of their own.

Mobile operators such as Apple, Google and Microsoft allow the creation of apps that are increasingly seen as the way people access content; lots of little walled gardens are popping up in the form of app stores.

What the zealots on both sides of the fence need to remember is that normal people just don’t care! They will browse the web. They will use apps and app stores. They will do what they want, when they want on the device they want. Everyone needs to recognise that there is a chance, just a chance, that one size really doesn’t fit all!

Open vs Closed? We’ve got both and we always will have.

The Web is Evolving

It’s worth clarifying some terms. The Web. What is it? Many people will think that the web is about content. If you are a web developer first and foremost you will likely see this as its major function. Most big websites today are backed by content management systems (a fancy word for a database) because the web is mainly about content. Right?

If you are a well rounded developer you will know that the web is about much more than content. Its about a slew of technologies that come together to create a coherent, standards based ecosystem for developing distributed and accessible sites and applications.

Apps and The Web

As a developer of native apps the web is important for hosting back end services and databases, providing middle tier communication layers (or API’s) and, quite often, for content. The web is the glue that makes it all work, but it is not the primary mechanism through which the content is consumed; the content is made available through the app, not through the browser.

As a developer of mobile websites, the browser is still the mechanism through which that content is consumed. The site can be found using the browser on the mobile device. You can normally bookmark the site to your phone’s home screen as well so that it will appear alongside all of the standard apps. Because modern websites are full blown applications in an of themselves, some people think this is the way everything will eventually end up. The web (actually just the browser) remains the single platform through which all content is consumed.

There is a third category of mobile thing. This is the hybrid app. For all intents and purposes it looks, at first glance, like a native app. You can’t access it via the browser; you most likely download it from an app store. The difference here is that the app actually has more in common with a mobile website but it has been wrapped in a native skin. Launch the app however and you may or may not notice that it doesn’t look or behave quite like most of the stock applications on your device. It might feel a bit slower. That’s because what you are seeing is essentially a big web browser embedded into a native view. This is not necessarily a bad approach but it is not necessarily the best one either.

Cost and Reach Matter

Here is the thing.

Many web developers will push mobile optimised websites, and responsive design. Some other web developers will push hybrid apps because they can leverage their existing skill set and get the app on lots of platforms with a nearly identical code base.

Many native app developers will push apps instead of mobile optimised sites. Even more will push a native solution as the only solution and tell you that hybrid apps are not worth doing.

The truth of the matter is that what many clients need is someone to tell them what they need! This advice should be given based on their brief and their available budget. While I personally believe that a native app is nearly always better than a hybrid app, in terms of the user experience, it may not be an option given the requirements and/or the budget…and it may not even be necessary!

Native vs Web: Some Practical Advice

So to conclude, I think it is fair to say there are a number of different options, technologies and choices to weigh up when you are looking at your mobile strategy.

Your strategy is what you should be looking at and what should drive your development choices. A good mobile developer should be able to help you put together the right package for you, not drag you down a path that is simply the right one for them. Here are a few things to consider along the way:

  • Consider if you need an app at all, or just need to make your existing website work better on mobile devices.
  • If you do need an app, think carefully about the platforms you need to release it on. It is nearly always better to develop for a single platform first.
  • If you absolutely must have an app on multiple platforms right away, then in 80% of the cases you are going to be looking at a hybrid app…unless you have a very serious development budget.
  • If you are looking at a hybrid app, consider the features you need carefully. You might not get access to all the features you could expect from a native app.
  • Consider if you need a mobile optimised website at the same time. You may be able to reuse some (or even most) of the development effort, depending upon complexity.
  • Native apps are faster and they can offer a very slick user experience. They should take advantage of the specific platforms they are developed for. They should ‘fit in’. Hybrid apps normally, although not always, look the same on every platform.
  • Even if you are developing a native app, consider what content can be dynamic. It may make sense to serve up HTML for some aspects of your UI.
  • Remember that both native apps and hybrid apps may have to go through an approval process. Mobile websites do not.
  • Be aware of the additional testing and submission time that native apps will require. Any content that can be hosted or can be accessed via a web service can be modified without having to resubmit the app.
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