Last January, this post over at Cult of Mac sparked some Clockwork debate about the various benefits and drawbacks for companies contemplating the development of their very own iPhone app.

Ensuing debate led to another article proclaiming iPhone developers are abandoning native app development for mobile websites, and while it may certainly be true that some developers see mobile web as a viable alternative, it seems likelier to attribute any dip in number of app developers (if there is such a thing) to what some would call “The Ending of the App Store Goldrush“. Perhaps developers are merely following in the footsteps of Facebook App developer Joe Hewit, who left because he was fed up with Apple’s review process.

Regardless, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that native mobile and network mobile are the same thing. Native will always be way, way faster than web apps. They will allow more UI options. They can interface with local devices and networks. They can use hardware like accelerometers, compass, GPS, camera and WiFi. They can have local databases and images.

Styling your web site for mobile and creating a native app are solving two entirely different problems.

It’s a question of what functionality you need. In the web olden days, companies that manufactured widgets could not imagine why they needed a web site. They’ve since realized how the web can deliver tangible value with suppliers, resource management, lead generation, ERP, CRM, ecommerce, customer services, customer satisfaction – the list goes on forever. The factory may not be on the net but the business is.

Now we’re all talking about mobile and the same questions come up. What can mobile do for my business? What can it do for my customers? What are the stengths of web apps for mobile devices (“mobile web”) versus apps that run directly on the phone (“native mobile”)?

Mobile Web

  • costs less compared to a native app
  • reaches most/all devices
  • can leverage existing web app functionality
  • exists “in the cloud”
    • no local storage is needed on your device
    • can access vast databases or fast computation
  • no need for a software update mechanism

Native Application

  • no network access required
  • can use native device hardware
    • accelerometer
    • compass
    • GPS
    • camera
    • WiFi
    • graphics processor
    • bluetooth
  • more User Interface (UI) possibilities (such as shaking an iPhone)
  • can have local images and databases
  • can interface with or interact with other local devices and networks (e.g. TV remote app)
  • can leverage “App Store” pheneomona from various mobile OS providers

Being in the app store with a dumb, shallow app, the equivelant of web “brochure-ware”, has no value. Bringing your business to native mobile apps is a different question entirely. As you can see above, a lot of what makes native mobile apps “special” is their use of the hardware. Ask yourself, can that hardware be used to enhance my interaction with my customers? If the answer is yes, you’ll need a native app.

Why do we still download desktop apps to our computers? Why not use web apps for everything? Because web apps aren’t good some things and we are not always on the network. The same logic applies to mobile apps: some things are better suited for native applications. The trick is knowing when that is the case!

About the Author
Martin is a web development veteran with over ten years of experience. He particularly enjoys solving challenging programming problems and finishing projects.
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About Michael
Michael is the Chief Scientist at Clockwork. He is a tech dork, musician, astrophysicist, and former CFO. He likes data and good ideas. He blogs at lolife.com and podcasts at Slacker Astronomy.
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