Mobile app or mobile web?

When we discuss mobile, the question we get asked more than any other is: should our strategy be to design mobile apps or mobile optimised websites?

This is the kind of question that brings out the zealots and sparks bloody flame wars. Apps are evil and must die! People love apps, apps are cool! So, who’s right?

When I come across an question like this—one that seems impossible to answer and where the two sides are cranking up the rhetoric—I know one thing for sure: it’s the wrong question.

Let’s start with what we know.

Mobile is fragmented and it's not getting any better

There are more devices, in more formats than ever before and more are coming. One Android developer recently claimed that it was having to deal with 1443 variants of Android.

Sure, some operating systems are dying (farewell, Palm, it was great while it lasted) but the variety of devices and formats is multiplying. And there are a lot of devices out there running things like Linux or custom versions of Symbian that you’ll need to take into account if you’re a global company. You need a strategy to deal with diversity.

Mobile changes quickly and it's hard to predict
Look at how things have changed in the past two years. Two years ago, there was no iPad. When Apple launched it the press reaction was 'WTF???'. Now tablets sell in the tens of millions and people are talking about the end of the PC era. Two years ago it was all about iPhone. Now Android is massive. Last year, Gartner predicted that Windows Phone 7 would kill the iPhone. Since then its market share has fallen (though the new Nokia phone has had a promising US launch).

Mobile devices get replaced at a faster rate than PCs (two years for a smartphone, versus 43 months for a desktop computer) and they get replaced with completely new stuff (apps cost a few pounds each to replace, PC software costs tens or hundreds of pounds per application – so users aren’t locked in to one platform as they have during the PC era).

No one knows what things will look like in two years’ time. If they say they do, they are lying. Your strategy has to position you for unexpected change.

People use any platform to do anything
Last month, Google published data collected over the Christmas 2011 period on how people use their devices for shopping online. There are some interesting differences between devices.

Graph of Google survey results from December 2011

Picking a line at random, you can see that people prefer to look for discounts on the PCs (73%) versus their tablets (46%). That makes sense: it’s a data intensive exercise with a lot of bouncing backwards and forwards and that’s easier on a PC.

But look again. Almost half the people they spoke to were using their mobile phones for this activity. Going down the list, no activity falls below 30%. You can’t say ‘people don’t use their phones to compare prices’ or ‘check inventory’ or anything. They use all the devices to do all the tasks.

This undermines the idea that your strategy should be ‘computers are for buying’ or ‘mobile is for reading reviews’. It puts a lie to the idea that mobile should be about cutting out features. Your strategy has to be: support all activities on all devices.

If you bet the farm on one platform or solution you will lose
You need to be able to see where your users want to go and follow them quickly and cheaply. But it costs the same to build a feature or write a body of text for a mobile website or app as it does a desktop website or app.

Given the variety of mobile devices out there, the cost of building optimised experiences could get steep very quickly. But if you choose not to play on a particular platform, you're leaving it open for your competitors. And if that platform takes off you could find yourself without an audience.

If you have to pick just one of ‘mobile optimised site’ or ‘mobile app for iPhone’ or whatever, and if your development costs are the similar to your desktop optimised web development costs, then you’re making a risky bet.

The solution: Begin with data
You need a way of re-using content and functionality across platforms to keep the cost of development as low as possible.

You need content, data and functional components that are tagged and structured so that you can re-purpose them and publish them to any platform as you need.

This means you need to look at your content management systems, customer databases, image libraries and functional components (APIs). If you get this right, you can move as quickly as your customers. If you get it wrong, you will waste money, have offices full of frustrated staff, and you’ll be toiling behind your competitors or Google or that aggressive new startup that’s come out of nowhere.

Those are big impacts, big enough that you can build an ROI business case for your strategic plan. If you follow Roger Pressman’s formula, every pound you invest in getting your data right could pay back with £60-100 in savings. There aren’t many places you can get a deal as good as that.

When you’ve got your data under control, you can start to build things on top of it much more cheaply. So you can react to the kinds of rapid changes that characterise mobile devices.

Go where the users are
This means you no longer have to make a big bet and hope for the best. You can make smaller investments with less risk and shorter pay-back times. Let the zealots carry on shouting about apps versus mobile web (whatever that is). You can win whatever game you decide to play.

And what if you need to do something now? Fine. Just make sure it’s cheap and disposable. And don’t let your real strategic problems get worse while you’re doing it.

This is the fundamental risk underlying the mDot site approach. The argument for this parallel development suggests this is the cheaper, easier way to add mobile functionality without touching your existing website. But this leaves you with two code-bases to maintain and synchronise and that can get messy in the long run.

Amateurs talk ‘strategy’
Military wisdom has it that ‘amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics’. In other words: a good general knows that keeping his troops supplied with raw material means they can be flexible and ready to fight wherever the battle needs to take place.

You face a confusing and uncertain battle. Don't be distracted by fast changing apps and websites. Look at the supply lines of Data and APIs.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.