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Mobile app, mobile Web, or both?

We don’t hear much anymore about building applications intended to run inside a mobile device’s browser. It’s just not fashionable or newsworthy. These days, the tools, techniques, user conferences, and marketplace are all about native mobile apps. Which camp are you in?

The browser is the easy solution. You don’t need separate code bases for Android, iOS, and Windows devices. If a website and server-side code works in one browser, it should work in any other. That model simplifies development, can vastly cut development costs, and speed time to market. When you’re done with development and testing, there’s likely no need for third-party certification and no app store to deal with. Host your site and you’re in business.

Seems perfect. But, what about the all-important user experience? You can’t push notifications and there’s no way to keep it running in the background. Because it has to run inside any browser, performance may be less than optimal. After all, we’ve all seen websites that run just fine on one desktop browser only to crash and burn on another. Cram too many design elements in the site to create a quasi-native-app look and feel, and painting the screen might become painfully slow. For your entertainment pleasure,  you can even view a gallery of mobile Web design miscues. Yet, for all their shortcomings, businesses still need to offer a mobile Web experience.

Mobile apps are very different. You tailor them to the specific OS and screen size. That means they’re likely to look a lot more attractive. Performance is almost guaranteed to be zippy. Users are likely to have a more-enjoyable experience. And that means they’ll come back again and again. Available for downloading via app stores, discoverability is easier. And you can charge a fee. Even big companies like magazine, newspaper, and other content publishers do that.

With mobile apps, you can send push notifications. You can save content to the device for working off-line. It’s the reason I can store my airline boarding passes in the iPhone Passbook app with no need to worry about whether I have a Wi-Fi or cellular connection at boarding time.

But, as in all things mobile, there’s a tradeoff. That OS and screen-size tailoring extends development cycles. That means development costs are higher. You’ve got to go through the vetting and testing process at multiple app stores. And there are the fees you have to pay every time your app sells.

This isn’t an either/or scenario. I suspect in the vast majority of cases that businesses need to offer a mobile Web and native app. A private developer who is building a game isn’t bound by the same rules.

Which is it for you? Have you forsaken mobile Web in favor of apps only? Or are you sticking with both? Are you migrating from Web to app? We’d like to know.

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