Steve Jobs Looked Beyond Native Apps. And He Was Right.

In the mad rush to make everything mobile, we've seen apps created just for the sake of creating apps. But marketers need to be more strategic. Budget, functionality, distribution and longevity should all factor into a mobile app development plan.

Seven years ago Steve Jobs sparked a debate within the development community—one that's still alive and well today. That year, with the pending release of the iPhone, Jobs peered into the future of mobile technology and predicted that web-based applications created to run off a device's browser would be the most versatile option.

He believed that developers could “write amazing Web 2.0 and AJAX apps that can look and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone, and … integrate perfectly with iPhone services," [Apple Wordwide Developer Conference, 2007]. The distinctions, as Jobs saw them, were that web apps would be secure, universally available, easy to update and required no dedicated software development kit (SDK). The debate was, and still is, that web app development was a better choice than native app development.

While a few years ahead of the technologies of the time, Jobs correctly touted the browser as an important, if not the most important, application platform. Seven years later, huge advancements in browser technology and an incredible resurgence in JavaScript as a matured programming language have narrowed the gap between app development techniques.

To help us make the right suggestions for clients, we dug into the benefits and drawbacks for each mobile app development method. Here you'll find a breakdown of the technologies to help guide the right choice for your brands.

Yes, You Do Need A Mobile App Strategy

Before we talk about how you should make mobile apps, we want to remind you why it's critical to include mobile experiences in you brand-building strategy.

In a research report released by Bioinformatics in August 2012, the life science and healthcare industries wanted easier ways to manage their business. According to the study, “72% of life scientists regularly use a mobile device to support their research in the lab."

More importantly, they want apps: “56% of life scientists would like lab suppliers to send them protocols and application notes via a mobile device." If you haven't already adopted a mobile app strategy, use this information to point your plan in the right direction.

Defining Mobile Experiences

Just as Jobs saw it, mobile experiences fall into two distinct categories: device apps and web apps.

Think of it like this, a device app interacts directly with the “native" operating system of the device. It is also downloadable from an app store making it ideal for a customer-facing (external) experience. A web app on the other hand operates off a browser. And though it's not downloadable from an app store, it can be pinned to a home screen, making it just as easy to locate and launch as a native app.

The Two Primary Development Options

Device app development can be done in two ways: Native and Non-native. Let's have a closer look at these two options and review their respective pluses and minuses:

  • Native: This is the most expensive and time-consuming option. Native app development means creating a unique application for each operating system (iOS, Android and Windows) by using a software development kit (SDK) for each platform. While it's the preferred method for building high-performance apps that need to access the full range of device-specific capabilities (such as accelerometer, camera, native file system, fingerprint verification, targeted hardware acceleration or other device features that have not been universalized), it offers the least flexibility for multi-device distribution. If built directly in each SDK environment, a native app can be more compatible over time and cost less in maintenance. But it requires finding a developer, or development team, that can create in multiple platforms (hence the more expensive and time consuming mention).
  • Non-Native: Non-native apps allow developers to leverage widely supported web technologies (HTML, CSS and JavaScript) as a basis for compiling close to native apps for each platform. To streamline the process, a developer can create an app concept once and publish across many platforms. But there are limitations. First, compiling an application into many native languages can complicate the process. Second, a non-native app will be the same across all platforms, which means it will not take advantage of device or OS-specific capabilities, making it suitable for smaller applications that display a smaller set of information.

To bridge the communication gap from one operating system to another, programs such as PhoneGap and Titanium (both compatible with iOS, Android and Windows) are available. Other programs exist, but based on our research these two are the most prominent. Regardless, there are drawbacks to these programs that will affect the result of your app, i.e. speed, difficulty debugging, and functionality limits since it doesn't naturally tap into the OS.

While the non-native option allows for multiple device development, native apps offer the best OS integration. Your budget, timeframe, app performance and flexibility will influence your choice. But before you decide, we let's look at the option that Jobs believed in: web apps for mobile.

A Third Option That's Faster And More Economical

In a previous post we established the superiority of Responsive Web Design (RWD) for mobile compatibility. With creativity and ingenuity, RWD can be leveraged to elevate a standard website into an immersive “web application" experience. This method is particularly valuable for—but definitely not limited to—internal apps like those used by sales teams in the field. A good example is Google calendar, which is a web app.

To use on a device, the web app URL may be pinned as an app button icon via the user interface. When touched, the pinned icon will open the web URL in a browser without any of its toolbars. If done right, the website will deliver an app-like experience via ordinary HTML/CSS/JS and standard web protocols without appearing like a website. To get a better sense of web apps that offer a native experience, try visiting the mobile LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ pages. When saved to a home screen they'll operate just like native apps.

The clear advantages to web apps are the cost and time savings. Web applications access the largest pool of application runtimes in the world (the web browser). In addition, it is easier to find engineers to work within this technology, making it more cost effective. Updates are automatic, bypassing any app store requirements or manual download from your end user. The conclusion: more people will see it, it's cheaper to make and easier to maintain.

Simplifying Your Choice

So as you can see, there is a range of development possibilities. Now how do you choose? Let's simplify your selection criteria.

Apps that require 3D modeling, animations and advanced graphic processing should be created as native device apps. The same advice applies if an app requires deep operating system integration. However, it's important to note that there is a very promising browser API for the accelerometer and camera that should be widely accessible in the next one to two years.

If a project needs a cross-platform mobile application, you can go either way: native or web app. But if you're looking to create a versatile application, one that's quicker and more cost effective and doesn't need device-specific features to operate, we strongly suggest going the web app route.

Leverage The Right Technology For The Right Need

If you're ready to kickoff your mobile strategy or want help making the right choice for mapping out your mobile branding needs, give us a call. We'll make sure that you select the right technology for the right need.

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