There once was a time when experts debated whether the first computers would ever fit inside a person’s home. Those gargantuan machines have since morphed into something that fits snugly in our pockets, and now the debates are over how best to make use of these little mobile devices. Among the debates is the question of which platform is most likely to survive in the future: apps or mobile web?

A closer look at both may help you decide on which side to place your bets.

Since their inception, apps have looked like the promise of the future. Boasting exponential popularity ever since Apple introduced the iPhone app store in 2008, apps now represent 52% of time spent with digital media in the US, according to comScore. Yet, the number of new apps downloaded monthly by smartphone users is often zero. With over two million apps existing in the app store, why would this be?

Well, according to the comScore study, users spend 47% of their time on their single most-used app. Apps clearly meet a need, but don’t entirely strike out an alternative. Users continue to turn to the mobile web for further information or social connection.

Users spend 47% of their time on their single most-used app. Apps clearly meet a need, but don’t entirely strike out an alternative.

comScore’s U.S. Mobile App Report

Mobile Web — The Entire Internet Through One Icon

Users have accessed the mobile web with relatively no effort since it came into existence. Smartphones created the new norm of taking web-surfing out of the office and into cars at stop lights, long grocery lines and crowded waiting rooms. Businesses began to realize their website’s weaknesses: Sites did not function the same nor work as smoothly on smartphones.

For most businesses, this is no longer the case. Developers now regularly write code to allow websites to adapt to desktops and mobile devices; advanced functionality is now standard practice and mobile-friendly websites offer app-like experiences.

Today, mobile web offers instant availability, without requiring extra steps for access. Access is as easy as typing in a web address. Instead of using, say, the gmail app to check gmail, users just tap the browser button and surf their way to the gmail page.

Another pro for the mobile web is that development is easier. Updates can be made and applied instantly, as opposed to the app experience in which users are required to download updates.

Plus, the reach of the mobile web is endless. Open a search engine and find the answer to anything you have ever wanted to know. The mobile web is easily searchable.

However, as billions of users access the Internet via the mobile web, an appeal to the masses means an individual lacks a customized experience. The experience may also seem clunky or too broad, reducing the quality of the overall experience. Something as simple as deleting emails from the Yahoo mobile site is a little tedious on the mobile page, while on its app the process is practically a pleasure.

Another con is it can’t easily make use of the native features of the phone. For instance, accessing the camera, microphone or the users’ contacts.

Apps — More customizable. More User-Friendly (most of the time).

As mentioned earlier, the two million apps in the app store suggests a large effort to offer customized experiences for the user. An app’s strength lies in offering a personalized and tailored user experience.

Storing an icon on your handheld device is an act of choosing what app suits the user best, as opposed to getting online and surfing until you find what you need. An app caters to the needs of its user, offering focused usability. By living on a smartphone it can easily access features of the phone, making the user experience easy and satisfying.

The downside to creating an app for a business is cost. The cost per loyal user in December was $4.23 on iOS. Consider the difference between simply adding a new page or functionality to your existing website versus the cost of conceiving and creating — refining the idea, writing the code, designing the interface, coming up with the graphics and so on — a new app.

And once it’s created, the app must actually connect with users. Poor visibility in a highly saturated market makes this extremely difficult. Did we mention there are two million apps in the app store?  Apps must stand up to endless competition, because something newer and slicker and more addictive is just around the corner. Even Angry Birds had a shelf life.

5 Questions To Help Decide What Works Best For Your Business

While others debate which will win in the future, it’s important to know which one will win you more customers today. Here are five questions to consider to help you choose.

      1. What is your purpose? Are you trying to sell something? Or is it for marketing purposes and creating awareness? For instance, Patagonia shared with its app users that they were no longer going to use the app, and move to using their mobile web only. Their mobile website had strengthened so much so that having an app was not necessary anymore. Is your purpose for interactivity or gaming? Is the purpose for heavy use tasks — where data processing is a necessity? Then an app is a strategic choice.
      2. How is the user going to interact with your app or mobile website? Will the app be used for informational purposes? Is it a reading app or a display of how-to videos? Then mobile web is going to be a better choice. How often will the user use your app in a day — multiple times a day, every day, once a week? Will users need to be able to access the internet when using it? If you have any important use cases where no wifi or slow connections will hamper the experience, then you are going to be needing an app.
      3. Does the user need to use any native features of the phone? If it requires use of a camera, flashlight or motion sensor than an app is superior to web. For example, chase bank requires the camera to make mobile deposits.
      4. How often will updating be required? Will you need to update the firmware often? Again, this is a question how often do you want to rely on your users to update their apps, as opposed to simply refreshing the next time they navigate to your website and find the most up-to-date version.
      5. How important is cost? Does your app rely on making revenue? Will the cost of maintaining your customer outweigh the cost of making the app and keeping it up-to-date? If your product does not require an app for its success, it may be wise to invest exclusively in mobile web.

Take Your Pick

What is best depends on what you need. Take a hard look at your user experience, the problem you are solving, and the goals you aim to achieve. Yes, there might be an app for that — if you decide to design one. But there’s a good chance you’ll realize you don’t need to.

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