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.
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.
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.
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.