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To app or not to app?

— Media & Technology —

So, the 10 billionth app (that’s 10,000,000,000th) was downloaded from the iTunes App Store on January 22, 2011 at approx. 9.30AM UK time (1:30AM PST/4:30AM EST). The free Paper Glider app won the British family a $10,000 iTunes gift card.

Angry Birds has consistently reigned as one of the most popular paid iPhone app since its release in December 2009. Its comical style and addictive game play has hooked millions of users around the world. Over 12 million downloads at last count, in fact.

Sure seems like there’s an app for just about everything. From finding recipes to the popular MMOG-based Call of Duty: Zombies (my husband’s app of choice). My personal new fave is iWine . Now I can snap photos of my favorite labels and add tasting notes, price, consumption occasion and even flag my favorites.

Clearly, apps rule the mobile world, right?

Or do they? There’s this other side of the coin. The mobile web. And it’s a veritable force for all these apps to compete with. According to Mashable, “consumers use the mobile web just as much as apps.” In fact, comScore reported that in April 2010, over 72 million mobile users accessed a website compared to 69 million users who used an application. That’s a 31% growth rate for mobile web versus 28% for apps from April 2009 to April 2010. (Both are showing more than 25% year-to-year growth.)

Smartphone apps vs. Mobile web growth comparison

So how do the two stack up on features?

One of the best comparisons that I’ve found of app vs. mobile web capabilities comes from Kevin Nakao of WhitePages (see the chart bellow). That said, he notes that, “the lines between apps and mobile web are blurring and converging.”

iPhone apps features vs. Mobile Web features comparison

So where do I stand?

I have to confess. I’m a self-professed lover of apps. Back in early 2009, I had the opportunity be part of a team that developed the first-ever gaming app for MillerCoors, Round Runner . Man was that exciting. But also extremely anxiety provoking and frustrating. (I don’t deal well with things beyond my control.) We were hog-tied by Apple’s approval process for 3 months as our launch deadline nearly came and went. Cool as it was to claim this first for MillerCoors, I’ve since realized that the world of the mobile web is much more promising…

I’m a convert.

One of the biggest benefits to the mobile web? You as the developer/brand are in control of what you put out there. You have the chance to constantly refine the experience, unshackled from Apple’s whims. And it’s easy to maintain, requiring little to no developer savvy to update since many content management systems support mobile. Plus the user isn’t required to download any updates when you do freshen things. (I have at least 10 App store updates pending on any given day; I’ve stopped trying to keep up.)

Additionally, the mobile web is compatible with more platforms and therefore has a broader reach. Apps must be customized to the screens and OS of many devices: iPhone, Android, RIM, Palm Pre and whatever new smart phones continue to hit the market.

Given this cross-platform friendliness, mobile sites are typically much less expensive to develop than an app.

Apps do have their place, though.

They offer cooler features, such as the camera, accelerometer (tilt detection), and “bumping” with Bluetooth, etc. They’re better configured to support transactions/purchasing and also a better gaming experience (just ask my husband). Then, there’s the cool factor. The belonging to the “there’s an app for that” crowd. And if you play your cards right, you just might land a Top App recognition in App Store. Which can really make you some $$$$.

The verdict?

Ultimately, brands and their agencies need to consider both. “Although growth in application usage on smart phones continues to grab the spotlight in the mobile market, the audience using their mobile browser remains larger and is growing just as quickly,” noted Mark Donovan, comScore senior vice president of mobile. “Brands need to remember to take into consideration the user experience across both channels when building their mobile strategies.”

Untapped is doing just that (thanks Brennan Stehling @smallsharptools for the tip). It uses the mobile web yet recognizes the device it’s living on and optimizes the experience accordingly. For example, after you download it from untappd.com, using an iPhone, an arrow points to the right part of the device and invites you to set up a homepage icon. At that point, it acts like an app…Brilliant!!!

Remember, you can always build for the App world later, after you nail the mobile web.

SO which way do you go? Is your target audience more likely to use the mobile web or an app? Do you want to tightly control the user interface and conduct any transactions? How do you plan to distribute & promote – via your web site or the App store? Or, does being recognized with a coveted award like Mac World’s App Gem award, making the headlines, and strutting your stuff matter most?

Erin Peerenboom
Posted by Erin Peerenboom
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