October 26, 2012

Last year I was interviewed by the New Zealand Herald to give my views on the relative merits of mobile apps and mobile websites.

My view then was that, for most businesses, a mobile-optimised website is cheaper to develop, less risky, and has greater reach than a mobile app.

Since then we’ve seen some interesting developments. Smart mobile devices continue to be the biggest growth area in high technology and laptop/PC sales don’t look like they will return to growth any time soon.

  • Apple appears to have lost its innovative edge and is now shipping low-risk, me-too products like the iPad mini and the iPhone 5.
  • Android has become the market leader.
  • Blackberry has faded into obscurity.
  • Nokia, once the dominant player, is (as they would say in Christchurch) munted.
  • Microsoft, with its Surface tablet and Windows 8, seems to be staking a claim for the top-end innovator’s role vacated by Apple.

Nokia: munted

Most importantly for developers, designers, and content creators, the mobile market is becoming increasingly fragmented. It’s not just smartphones and iPads now. There is a plethora of form factors available, from tiny phone screens to the 7 inch Kindle Fire HD, now the iPad Mini, and the retina displays of the latest iPads.

So if you’re going to make an app, you need to make it work on a number of platforms – or you’ll risk alienating the people who don’t use the device family that you’ve targeted. And that means creating different versions. And then you need to maintain the different versions for all these platforms.

Fun. Not.

And there’s no guarantee that anyone is actually going to use your app anyway. According to the NBR’s Chris Keall, only 10% of people use an app more than once.

As an example, let’s go through my iPhone and try to identify the apps that don’t suck, i.e apps that I’ve used more than once and would notice if they weren’t on my phone any more…

  • Spotify
  • Flipboard
  • iGo GPS navigation
  • Nike + GPS
  • Sky TV
  • Kindle
  • Skype

Now that I look at this list, these apps all have something in common. They transform my phone into a completely different kind of device, like an unlimited streaming music jukebox, a magazine, a book, an in-car GPS, a pedometer, or a digital TV recorder.

So unless your idea involves turning the phone into a new device for a specific purpose,  and if you want to create an experience for mobile users that’s reliable, cheap, and easy to maintain, websites seem to be the way to go. But not so fast… making websites is not as easy as it used to be.

The mobile revolution has meant website design and development has seen the emergence of strange new terms like media queries, responsive design, and browser APIs, that almost make me get all nostalgic for IE6’s bugs and the bizarre Quirks Mode.

But that’s another story for another time…

In the meantime, make sure you check out the new Mogul website on a mobile device. Turn the screen around and see how everything moves and changes to fit the screen. There’s some fancy stuff going on there (Disclosure: I work for Mogul).