Monday, July 19, 2010

Native & Web Apps

Currently there is a lot of discussion about how to best deliver content and services over the mobile phone: native or web applications? In short a native application is specifically designed to run on a device's OS; a web application is one in which all or some parts of the software are downloaded from the web each time it is run.

Global Intelligence, a Finnish firm, offers some interesting findings based on a survey of developers, publisher service providers, publishers and technology consortiums. The full white paper can be found at

This research suggests that by 2013 the majority of native device attributes are set to reach mobile/HTML5 web applications, including geo-location, camera, messaging and the like, offering user experiences that rival those of native applications. Research author Lie Luo cites some advantages associated with web applications:

--They offer an an "architectural advantage when targeting a cross-device launch, where significantly less platform migration is required compared to native applications," allowing for substantial savings in porting and other costs.
--The "web platform is particularly useful for subscription-based services such as communication, news and weather, financial services, retail shopping, where iterative design and user analytics are more relevant."
--The native apps approach, common among smaller and pay-per-download application providers, "will see a decrease in mind share from 44% to 24% as mobile web usage dramatically increases in popularity."

The author suggests this development may lead to a "proliferation of mobile application distribution beyond the current controlled App Store environments toward an open model, as see over the evolution of the PC Internet. Web applications might become more attractive as the degree of hardware fragmentation increases. Lie Luo acknowledges that in the short run native applications will likely remain the preferred interface for heavier applications like 3D games and the like, in part due to available integrated billing options.

In a followup Q&A, available at the same URL, the researcher is asked what do the findings imply for print publishers?  His response: "The findings have important implications for print publishers because the most common approach currently used is to launch platform-specific native applications. However, this is only feasible for large print publishers and typically too costly for smaller companies who wish to reach the maximum number of audience on mobile devices.

"While the iPhone or iPad provides access to 86 million users, you still need to consider the hundreds of millions of Android, Symbian, or Windows phone users holding devices by Samsung, HTC, Blackberry and Nokia."

This issue is of more consequence outside of the US, especially in Europe and Asia, but Luo does have a point.  In his view each platform a publisher adopts can increase development costs by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the cost of coding, production, maintenance and marketing.  This means for "smaller, independent newspapers and magazine publishers, this is simply out of the question given the lack of immediate financial gains. As a result, they would only be able to target one popular platform or device."

Of course, it remains to be seen whether web applications in time will be the better solution. There remains the questions of discoverability and even desirability. Luo notes that his study shows that web apps already appear to generate greater user stickiness and show greater usage over time, compared to native apps where usage tends to decline more quickly.

In the July/August issue of the Atlantic magazine  Michael Hirschorn writes about "The Closing of the Digital Frontier," with the App Stores taming the Digital Wild West.  His argument is persuasive but perhaps we'll see the Internet bounce back again, flush with new technologies and riding into town on a souped-up HTML5, promising an open platform.

This sounds a little like the dot comm period; only much more muscular.