In the past few years, mobile web browsing has exploded with the introduction of devices such as the iPhone. This growth has companies everywhere scrambling to come up with ways to adapt to their customers’ rapidly changing information needs and to leverage the plethora of new platforms. There are 3 main ways to create a presence on mobile devices –
- existing non-mobile optimized websites;
- websites or web applications specifically designed for mobile devices;
- and native applications that run directly on the devices.
It’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each of these to determine the best strategy for your business.
Option 1: Existing non-mobile optimized websites
One of the key components to the recent smartphone revolution is the availability of desktop-class web browsers on mobile devices. Before the iPhone, mobile browsers were severely limited in their ability to display web content and websites designed for desktop browsers were more or less useless on these devices. This made it critical to design websites specifically for mobile phones. However, thanks to the large screens and clever interface gestures like flicking, dragging, and zooming on today’s smart phones, websites that are designed well for the desktop are perfectly usable on-the-go in most cases.
One of the best examples of this is the New York Times website, which Apple loves to show off in their commercials. This is one of the most highly trafficked and content heavy websites on the web, and yet the same design works well on desktops and mobile devices alike. If the main purpose of your website is to display content, it is unlikely that you need to do anything to cater to today’s mobile devices. Even desktop-centric designs for basic functions like search, account login, and signup are handled well by modern smart phones.
Option 2: Mobile optimized websites and web applications
On the other hand, if your website is more of a web application and heavily focused on functionality, making some design changes to make life easier for mobile users might be a good idea. A relevant example is the auto insurance quote system on GEICO.com. This application requires the user to input a very large amount of data to generate an insurance quote for their vehicle. Unlike content-based websites where the user can just zoom in on and scroll around the content they want to see, functionality-based websites require the user to understand all of the interface elements, input information, and make decisions, sometimes with sensitive personal information. It’s important that the user be able to see all of the form elements and labels clearly.
Using modern programming techniques, web designers can make mobile websites look and work like native applications on a mobile device. There is currently no way to make data entry tasks as easy on a mobile device as on a desktop, but if it’s possible to develop a very usable auto insurance quote system for mobile devices, it should be possible to design an interface for almost any data collection requirement.
One huge benefit to making a mobile-optimized website instead of a native application is that the same website will work on all mobile devices. Native applications have to be developed separately for different systems like iPhone and Android, and there can be significant development and maintenance costs involved. With existing platforms changing rapidly and new ones being introduced frequently, trying to offer services uniformly to all users via native apps can become a headache.
Option 3: Native Applications
That said, there are some use cases for which there is no option but to make a native application for a mobile device. This is the ultimate solution in terms of availability, functionality, and performance. Native applications have the ability to leverage the hardware of the device they run on, so you could use the phone’s microphone to record a sound, or the camera to take a photo, etc. This functionality is used well in USAA’s mobile application, which allows users to deposit funds into their account simply by photographing a check with their mobile phone and uploading it to USAA. This would not have been possible with a mobile website.
To take it further, native apps can use the capabilities of the hardware in ways that mobile sites cannot. Today’s mobile phones come with sophisticated graphics chips which can render dazzling video and interactive games. Especially with Adobe Flash player not working very well or at all on mobile devices, if you need to provide graphical interactivity or animation to users, native applications are the way to go.
Another area where native apps have an advantage is that they are stored and run directly on the phone, so they can be used when the device is not connected to the Internet. You should consider a native application when it’s critical that your users have access to your content or functionality even when their device may not have an active Internet connection.
As you can see, there are many ways to have a presence on popular mobile devices today. In our experience, many customers overestimate their need for mobile-specific offerings when a normal desktop version or mobile optimized version of their existing offerings would be the ideal choice. A good developer can help you make sense of your options and choose the one that gives not only the best return on investment, but also the best experience for your mobile users.