I’ve been asked this question often and for those who know me will surely know what I’m going to say…”It depends.” There are major drawbacks to both paths so it’s important to understand what you are trying to achieve; deciding on the features you desire will help lead you to the best course (for now).
The bottom line differentiator between mobile apps versus mobile web is whether you need to utilize features or functionalities of the phone itself, for example, activating the camera, clicking to call a retailer’s phone number, or accessing lat long data residing on the device. Then you need to develop an app, no ifs, ands, or buts. Only mobile apps can tap into the device features and data. Best examples are Foursquare and Gowalla, ShopKick and RedLaser.
On the other hand, mobile optimized websites are really great solutions for just about most or all content publishers. Website programming software and tools are so readily available, creative developers like Treesaver.net (thanks, Scobleizer!) can dynamically format and scale just about any content to best fit the viewing screen size albeit iPod, iPad or larger. Whether you’re trying to deliver content and ads and videos or sell stuff across a wide variety of devices, then mobile web is going to be your best solution. You won’t have to worry about device fragmentation or carriers; instead, go for the most widely adopted browser formats and you’re good. Magazines should really be thinking about mobile web at this point.
However, there are drawbacks for either way you choose – big drawbacks.
First, for mobile apps, you have to choose the phone OS on which to develop but the biggest are the iPhone and Androids. Secondly, we are already past a tipping point with over-proliferation of apps so that it’s impossible to easily find and discover interesting, useful, or entertaining apps. Similiar to the online video space which has not been able to create the killer “discovery” vehicle, its way too early to expect mobile app discovery solutions today.
Therefore, marketing your app becomes just as critical as marketing any product in a highly competitive marketplace and it should be approached with the same marketing strategy, discipline, and execution required to drive downloads or sales. Marketing in a highly competitive marketplace is not something most app developers can do or want to do so be smart and find the right people to help you.
On the other hand, while mobile web sounds great in theory, in reality, the poor quality and reliability of web connections can completely kill the user experience, thus killing your mobile website traffic. I hate Blackberry’s web function – it’s just too slow so unless it’s for color-coded freeway-speed information while I’m driving, I won’t use it. Of course, the iPhone is great when you can get/keep service. But with the launch of AT&T, T-Mobile, Clearwire, and Verizon’s versions of their 4G networks, the mobile web experience will become much better soon, especially for data-rich content sites.
Do remember that “soon” is a relative term. Like the launch of any new device, you’ll have to wait for the roll-out of the devices as contracts expire or if you’re lucky, you’re just hot and people buy your 4G device anyway.
Oh, and regardless of the distribution of 4G or good 3G devices, if your mobile website hasn’t been conceived and designed for mobile phones, then don’t even say you have one. There’s nothing that kills a user’s interest in you faster than a really crappy mobile website. You know, those companies who think their standard company website “should” be adequate “enough” so they can “say” they have a mobile strategy? Ugh, forgetaboutit. To have a successful, long-term mobile strategy, you need to “go undercover” and see things from your customers’ perspective. It’s amazing how many companies seem to skip this step.
So define your goals and objectives, research your options, look at what’s happening and what technology is coming down the pipe in your space, see things from your customers’ perspective, and make a decision knowing that you’ve made the best possible choice based on the information you had available to you at the time. Or just call me and we can walk through this together.