Mobile Web vs Native App

I just read a very good article discussing some trade-off considerations when deciding between building a mobile app vs a mobile website (and remember it’s not always an either/or decision) but some very important further breakdown of the mobile device users is needed when considering ‘reach’. I try not to just post other people’s articles on my blog but this one generated a lot of thoughts in my head. The author (Aaron Maxwell) wrote a much better article than I usually see doing this comparison but he is still missing some important depth to his argument.

Check out the article here (my discussion is after the jump below)

The author notes that:

For mobile websites, it’s easy. The best indicator is how many people actually browse the web on their mobile phones. As of late 2010, it’s currently over 36% of all U.S. mobile phone subscribers.

Following that, a breakdown of the major smartphone platforms by over-all North American market share (not the smartphone segment specifically) is given:

  • iPhone: 6.75%
  • Android: 7.75%
  • BlackBerry: 8.53%
  • TOTAL: 23.0% of all mobile devices

However, the problem with directly comparing a smartphone user to a normal phone user is that the average smartphone user (especially from those platforms) browses the web at a WAY higher rate than the average mobile user. Let’s say it’s 80% of smartphone users that browse the web (I don’t have the exact stats handy but I think it’s somewhere in that neighbourhood). 80% of the 23% is about 18%, so fully HALF of all the users that do browse the web in North America from their mobile device do it from one of those three smartphone platforms. That leaves the other 18% of mobile web browsing users (out of the remaining 77% of mobile users, so ~23% of the non-smartphone web browsers) as accessible via a mobile site not an app.

Subtract from that the percentage of non-smartphone mobile web browsing users who have a crappy mobile browser that is not great at displaying mobile sites that are leveraging flashy graphics and marketing interactions. The additional addressable mobile users drops down even further from that 18% number. I would casually peg it at really more like 10% extra addressable mobile users via a website compared to an app for one of those smartphone platforms.

Now you have the 18% of smartphone surfers plus the 10% of non-smartphone surfers using a decent browser and you get 28% of mobile users addressable via the mobile web vs an app addressable market of 23%.

Yes, you have to develop multiple apps to address the full smartphone app user market, but depending on the scope of your app, that’s not always triple the cost as most good multi-platform software development shops are experienced in supporting multiple platforms (yes, that’s a shameless plug for my new employer but multi-platform support is pervasive in any good mobile app development shop).

I’m also not convinced that to have a consistently great mobile web experience, it’s not just as difficult dealing with the multiple screen sizes, browser capabilities and device performance deltas as it is with mobile apps. I’m sure an experienced mobile web developer would say they have developed ways of handling those differences… which is exactly what I say about supporting fragmentation on the app side so let’s call it a draw there.

Anyway, good article but it’s important to really look at the specifics of mobile devices and users’ activities when deciding on technology and platform choices, not just scratch the surface of market share and user behaviour.

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