There is an interesting little issue occurring in web development at the moment and it is all being caused by the rise in mobile browsing.
The mobile device has always been a bit a challenge (anyone remember WAP?) but until the iPhone it was an issue that was pretty irrelevant. Web browsing on a phone was so painful that no-one did it. Right now if you check your logs most sites are only going to have a tiny amount of iPhone traffic. However if you live in a major city and you own a phone with a decent screen and browser then you are probably aware of how quickly you start to expect to have access to the same level of information you have at home when on the move. Why should I know more about delayed trains in bed than on the platform?
So the technology is finally reaching the point where the consumer is starting to expect to be able to browse the web on mobile devices. In parallel there is the rise of the app. The prime advantage of the app over mobile web browsing is that the app can sensibly cache data locally and therefore provide a degree of offline tolerant behaviour. You can also simplify some of the UI if your user interacts with your site instead of just consuming the content.
So what do you do? Do you invest in creating a mobile version of your site or instead create an app? Obviously if you can afford it you may want to pursue a web/mobile web/iPhone/Android strategy, i.e. do everything. For most companies though the practicalities lean towards trying to have a main website that more or less works with modern mobile browsers (mostly the iPhone). There are a lot of things that go into that like page load but in essence is a “code and hope” strategy where you hammer any nails that stick up after the event.
What’s interesting about this strategy is that HTML5 has some offline capabilities that allow you to provide some offline capability as long as you as you are happy to ignore the non-Opera/Safari/Chrome users (and frankly why not). This means that can stick to pure web development and have a reasonable mobile experience. Adding a JSON API to your site’s content also opens you up to third-parties developing apps for you.
So what kind of reasons should drive you to develop an app? The first reason is really the customised rich user experience, an app should radically simplify accessing your content. For example for a timetable site a mobile app can make it easier to enter and refine queries, defining search options on mobile web tends to be a pain and you often want to save and reuse search settings rather than re-enter them. Sites with user-generated content may also want to have a rich UI to encourage the user to keep supplying material.
An app should also always be trying to cache content when online and pre-empt the user’s needs. For example it makes sense to try and download timetable information and travel updates for locations I use frequently in my search. If I open my timetable search app and the first thing I see is whether there are delays on my route home are and when the next bus or train is going to be then I may not need to do anything else.
Apps also open sophisticated location service options, although location has been broadened to web browsers too your ability to respond to location based information is very limited on your home PC. A reviews website for example has a strong incentive to invest in an app so it can supply location-based reviews.
It is not clear at the moment whether it is more important to develop a mobile web or a mobile application capability. The emergence of capable, enjoyable web browsing on handhelds in an important development, there are many more mobiles than computers. Thinking about how your web content works on those devices is suddenly very relevant. Developing a mobile-capable site is a good defensive strategy but for some businesses being able to enter the mobile app market earlier is going to be much more important as it could potentially form an audience for them that is greater than their current web users.