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Browser Vs. App: Which Is Better?

Wed, 11/24/2010 - 11:24am
Andrew Berg

Mobile apps are all the rage, but the mobile Web provides broader reach for companies looking to go mobile.

Do consumers really prefer mobile browsers to apps? Two recent surveys, one from Adobe’s Omniture division and one commissioned by Orange in the U.K., found that end-users prefer mobile browsers to apps, at least in a few areas, most of them research based activities (e.g. shopping, finding a map, general search).

Browser Vs. AppsWhile it’s easy to make the case that Adobe’s survey is biased, given the company’s Scene 7 software, which is aimed at developing for the Web/mobile Web, both it and the Orange study are good indications that the battle between the app and the mobile browser is far from over. Just as many companies choose between SMS, MMS and in-app advertising for their mobile campaigns, a similar choice has to be made when it comes to rolling out either a native mobile app or a browser-based solution, whether that be an app coded in HTML5 or a mobile website.

Upon closer look, the choice for the enduser is really whatever is the easiest and fastest to use. But for those companies hoping to grow a mobile presence, the choice is more complicated.

PC EXPERIENCE PREVAILS
For those users who do prefer the mobile browser, it could be a case of old habits dying hard. Sheila Dahlgren, Adobe’s marketing director for its Scene 7 Web development software, says she thinks her company’s survey found that end-users prefer using their mobile browser to apps because it’s what they’re used to.

“We would like to lean on what we saw as the PC grew and try to take those best practices and use those on the mobile,” she says, noting that those activities users preferred to do with their mobile browsers were things that they would normally use their desktop browser to complete.

Like everyone who talks apps, Dahlgren is quick to point out that fragmentation and reach are the two top reasons companies prefer to deploy using a browser-based solution or mobile wesbite. “If your goal is to have the broadest reach, you’re probably going to go to the browser.”

Sheila DahlgrenDahlgren says that despite all the hype surrounding mobile, companies still consider their mobile strategies in the planning stages and that ROI is their first concern. Another Adobe survey, based on responses from 446 participants representing a crosssection of product categories and sales channels, found that more than 80 percent of respondents said they were planning or already have deployed a mobile commerce website versus 8 percent with a downloadable application-only strategy.

HIGH STAKES FOR MOBILE WEB
If companies do decide that they’re going to throw money at their mobile websites in lieu of a mobile app, they better be sure that it provides a fast, smooth-running experience. A recent study by Equation Research on behalf of

Gomez, a mobile Web optimization company, found that end-users have some pretty high expectations for mobile websites. The Gomez study, which surveyed 1,001 mobile users, found that almost 31 percent of respondents said six to 10 seconds was the maximum they were willing to wait for a mobile website to load before giving up and trying another page. Fully 38 percent of respondents said that they expect a mobile Web transaction, such as checking a bank balance, to take no more than one to 30 seconds.

The results tell the story of a mobile enduser that grew up on the PC-based Web and expects that experience to translate fully to the mobile. The Gomez study found that 60 percent of respondents had trouble accessing a mobile website in the past 12 months, with 78 percent of those saying that slow load time was the problem.

There’s redemption for the mobile Web if the experience gets better. Eighty percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to use the mobile Web if it were as fast and reliable as their experience on a PC. Next-generation networks, like LTE and WiMAX, as well as better browsers and processors, should go a long way toward giving the mobile Web a shot in the arm performance-wise.

APPS ALSO HELD TO HIGH STANDARD
Regardless of whether the mobile Web improves, apps are indeed here to stay. Despite the conclusions reached by the Orange and Adobe surveys, end-users really do like apps, but they like their apps to address a certain purpose and to work well.

A Harris Interactive study conducted online in October and commissioned by EffectiveUI finds the majority of mobile phone users who download and use applications choose to download those apps based on recommendations and good user experience, rather than the brand name of the company or organization that released it.

In a blog post, Anthony Franco, president of EffectiveUI, outlined an informal list of best practices for mobile apps. Franco doesn’t believe that there really should be an app for everything and every company, opining that the mobile Web can be just as effective in achieving a company’s desired results.

“Ask yourself: ‘Do we really need to build an application or can you simply design a smartphone specific website?’ All new smartphones render HTML very well in their modern, mobile browsers,” Franco says, adding that “if there is not a compelling reason to download an app, [end-users] won’t.”

Franco believes that a mobile website really is a way around the fragmentation issue. “One major side benefit to creating a mobile website is that you have something that will work across devices,” he argues. “In most circumstances, you need to build an application specific to a device – where a mobile website is much more ubiquitous.”

While the 350,000 apps over at the App Store may mean there are a lot of apps out there, that number says nothing about how many of them are actually useful to those users who download them.

The number that drives home consumers’ appetite for apps is the 3 billion plus apps that have been downloaded since Apple opened the iTunes App Store back in July 2008. Independent app store GetJar has racked up more than 1 billion downloads since it opened. Given those kinds of numbers, the ubiquitous mobile application doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

When Apple laid down some plain-English guidelines for application submissions, the company was very clear about what it didn’t need. “If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted,” the guidelines read.

It appears that even Apple is acknowledging that consumers’ tastes are becoming more refined. The glitchy bean-counting app or the buggy mobile site just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

WITHOUT ANY FUSS
John StewartJohn Stewart, vice president of technical services for Kony Solutions, a company that creates both Web-based and native applications, says that not so long ago, everyone thought they had to make the decision between creating an on-device app or a mobile website.

Kony started about four years ago but only came to market with its build-once app development solution early last year. Stewart said that from then to now – less than a year – the industry has changed dramatically.

“I definitely see the market changing, where people are beginning to realize that they can rethink their mobile strategy and offer an intertwined offering across SMS, tablets, mobile Web and native apps as well as on all kinds of other gadgets,” Stewart says.

He says that native apps in general offer the best end-user experience but is quick to add that HTML 5 is adding a lot of functionality to the mobile browser that simply didn’t exist until recently. But the devices that OEMs build, and the features they come packing, quietly craft from the background what users will and won’t want to do on that device.

While the iPhone revolutionized the mobile browser experience, it also ironically pioneered the app culture. Stewart says the iPhone’s Safari browser, and Research In Motion’s comparatively weaker browsing experience, are good examples of the way devices can shape user behavior.

“Each of the individual manufacturers, in their implementation of the experience, as well as the technologies that they’ve been able to expose, does guide and change what users will and want to do on that device,” Stewart says, adding that he carries multiple devices around and has to force himself to use the BlackBerry for browsing the Web.

Enhancements like Safari’s ability to add browser bookmarks to the desktop brings the mobile browser one step closer to the native app experience, Stewart says. But in the end, consumers don’t really care what technology they’re using.

“The consumer doesn’t really care as much about the technology underneath. They just want to get to their data,” he says. “They want to do it quick. They want to do exactly what they’re trying to accomplish without any fuss.”

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