Why Brands Should Focus on Mobile Web, Not Mobile Apps

Mobile Screenshot, RUGBY by Ralph Lauren | Source:

Mobile Screenshot, RUGBY by Ralph Lauren | Source: RUGBY

With smartphone adoption rates higher than ever, there has recently been a flurry of activity from fashion brands focused on developing and deploying mobile applications. Today, luxury brands like Hermès, Chanel and Gucci have mobile apps for Apple’s popular iPhone. But far less attention has been paid to developing Mobile Web sites. In this guest post, our friends at PercentMobile explain why investing in the Mobile Web can often make more sense than building mobile apps.

NEW YORK, United States — Mobile data traffic is expected to grow 40-fold in the next five years. As the mobile internet rises in significance, the fact that over a hundred thousand mobile applications have been developed for Apple’s iPhone has been hailed as evidence of a rapidly growing mobile ecosystem.

Indeed, there are some amazing applications available. But much less attention has been paid to the Mobile Web. Here, we aim to shed light on the critical differences between mobile apps and Mobile Web and help brands choose wisely as they develop their mobile strategies.

Hyperlinks create a usable and connected experience.

Credited with inventing the World Wide Web, British engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee created hyperlinks to serve as the thread that connects the Web. Google turned these hyperlinks into currency. Indeed, when search engines crawl the Web, they follow and analyse hyperlinks to establish relationships between content.

But a critical, and often overlooked, limitation of mobile applications is that they do not easily accept incoming links. There is no central registry for URLs that point to a certain piece of content in an iPhone app. Without easily deployed hyperlinking, these apps are second class Web citizens and, as such, lead an isolated existence.

Imagine this scenario: You Google “Chanel fashion show” and find a video of the S/S 2010 Ready-to-Wear runway show. But when you click on the link, it opens Chanel.com on your phone’s web browser, and not the Chanel iPhone app, even if you have it installed.

In this case, to deliver a usable experience to consumers, Chanel must develop a Mobile Web site that’s optimized to detect and display on mobile browsers — even for those users that have its iPhone app installed. The result is double development costs and different user interfaces for the same content.

Platform neutrality is a step towards rational product development.

HTML, the programming language that is the framework for most Web sites, was conceived as a platform-neutral way to deliver content. Web site resources such as images, javascript and dynamic code live on Web servers. To deploy these resources, all you have to do is update or copy them. This applies to Mobile Web sites as well.

However, mobile applications are platform-specific. They only work on specific devices. Today, the dominant platforms are iPhone OS, Android OS, Web OS, Symbian and RIM OS. But many new operating systems are on the way, along with newer and newer versions of the same platforms. The result? Greater and greater fragmentation.

If you want to be present on all platforms (or even the top ones) you will need to have a team of developers who have mastered an array of platforms, and all their different versions. And when an OS is updated by a device manufacturer, you will need to ensure that your apps are forward compatible. If you compare all this to the relative simplicity of updating a website, it starts to look like a complex, time-intensive and expensive process.

Application stores are the new walled gardens.

Furthermore, most applications are published through walled application stores that reserve the right to refuse your app for a number of reasons. Imagine having to go through an approval process to have your websites indexed by a search engine. But unfortunately, there’s no way around this kind of cumbersome application review, as unvetted apps can seriously damage a user’s phone. Mobile viruses are not for the faint of heart.

Reality check.

When your mobile strategy requires fast, videogame-like graphics, sophisticated audio processing, or access to a user’s camera or address book, you will most likely need an application. In most cases, however, developing an app makes less sense. Indeed, the advancement of Mobile Web browsers now allows for local data storage, access to geo-location and multi-touch user interfaces.

Our advice?

There is a simple approach that all leading Mobile Web sites follow, from Volkswagen (m.vw.com) to The New York Times (mobile.nytimes.com): create a basic mobile site that will render well on almost any phone, then optimise a couple of versions to leverage the special features offered by devices like the iPhone. In the designer fashion category, brands like Ralph Lauren have made progress is this direction, launching Mobile Web sites at m.ralphlauren.com and m.rugby.com.

Make no mistake, Apple’s iPhone — and now the iPad — are gorgeous devices that offer a context that’s beautifully suited to displaying fashion content. When resources are plentiful and creating buzz-worthy digital tactics are what’s important, there’s nothing wrong with developing platform-specific applications. But as brands face longer-term, strategic decisions on how to prioritise and optimise their investments in mobile, focusing on the Mobile Web makes more sense.

Remember, Mobile Web sites fully integrate into the rest of the digital ecosystem with easy in- and outbound linking. In contrast, mobile applications are a step backwards into the dark ages of platform dependency and make it more difficult for your content to flow freely across the internet. Choose wisely.

PercentMobile is a New York-based mobile analytics firm that helps global brands understand their mobile internet audience.

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8 comments

  1. Great guest post!

    Your points on platform neutrality are particularly important; I experienced an issue with this on my iPhone just this weekend. As a member of Guess.com’s mailing list (I think I signed up to get a discount or enter a contest), I saw that they were having an awesome sale, which prompted me to click onto their Web site directly from my e-mail. However, once I arrived at the site, I realized I couldn’t see large images of the clothes because they are presented in flash. On my computer, these images look great and I can zoom in and really check them out, but on my iPhone, nothing. It’s hard to get motivated to purchase if you can’t see the merchandise!

  2. i’ll be happy when fashion sites stop using flash for the bulk of their information… especially bad for iphone users…

    this article is pretty on target for fashion companies, especially since you can hit two birds with one stone by making it easy to bookmark the mobile site on your iphone..google does it perfectly with their features like calendar, reader and docs.

    that said, i do enjoy the style.com’s app as it’s easier and nicer to look at the runway shows than it is on the site.

  3. Fantastic post. One of the drawbacks of tech is its dependency on platforms, so the freer we can get from that, the better.

  4. Good article. There is a place for mobile apps designed for specific platforms, but they don’t have the same openness as a well designed mobile website. You can’t link to content inside of an iPhone app. Of course, some brands who are still trying to control every aspect of their image probably love them for just that reason.

  5. A very realistic and mature approach to mobile web. I am happy that you were able to stress that innovation is not always the first step… simply improving what you have now in a fashion that is user friendly with all mobile OS is a great way to avoid the “fragmentation” issue

  6. Apps work better for specific ‘experiences’ or projects. Like Gucci’s App which offers live music. But this is very different from browsing. And they should be considered alongside, not instead of, a Mobile Website in any digital strategy. Great article!

  7. Very good summary. Remember also that web sites suit social spread – you can easily share a URL with anybody – no matter what your device. Sharing an app is a nightmare and it probably won’t work because the recipient will not have the same device type.

    Imagine if twitter worked by passing round apps to download rather than bit.ly links!!!