When to app (revisited)

Last summer I wrote an article about what I saw as being key reasons why one  would build a native app for a device, rather than just deliver a service through a web browser. A year and a bit on, and having had opportunity to talk to a stack of people about the subject of developing compelling consumer services through technology, I thought it worth revisiting the subject given what I know now.

To start with, it’s worth thinking about the broader issue of business models that might be underpinning an App or Web service (again, revisiting work from earlier this year):

Altruistic development, where there isn’t a business model per se, when a developer wants to get something out to the world. To a great extent this is the model that has underpinned much of the open source movement over the years.

Brand building development is when an app or service is developed with the intention of raising the presence of a brand using technology in a similar fashion to more traditional advertising and promotional channels.

Transactional services development is when an app or service is being used to help customers access a company’s products and services – think ecommerce, online booking services and the like.

Finally, revenue from the app development is when the business model is based on selling the app itself (through an app Store), in-app purchases (of additional functions, content and so-on), and/or though in-app advertising. There is also, I guess, the “exit strategy” app – where an app is built that leverages and enhances other 3rd party services and is then acquired (think TweetDeck, Instagram).

So, given that context, why might one build an app for a device, rather than deliver a service through a browser?

To cope with network interruption.
We don’t yet live in a world where network access is ubiquitous, and so having an app installed locally on a device, with cached data, means that there is functionality available whenever it’s needed, rather just when the network is there.

It actually amazes me how many of the mobile phone apps I use regularly seem to make no effort on this at all. Of course there are some services that make no sense without a connection (“Can I get an offline telephone, please?”), but for the most part I struggle to see why device apps are designed with the assumption of network connectivity.

As a slight aside, as a rough rule of thumb, the size of screen on a device appears to be proportionate to the reliability of network connection: a small smart phone is usually very mobile in the way in which it is used and therefore subject to interrupted network connections; a tablet device tends to be less mobile (used around the home or office, but not as much inbetween) and a large desktop rig will rarely if ever leave its home.

To take advantage of a device’s hardware
Whether it’s a game wanting to exploit graphics processing, or an augmented reality app wanting access to positioning data, some apps just need to be sitting locally to be able to take advantage of the devices on which they are used.

To process large chunks of data
This isn’t a “big data” story, more “big files”. And I’m thinking particularly about video… which generates networking-busting volumes of data which are still often far-better manipulated locally than on the network.

To be “discoverable”
With so many of them, it can be quite a challenge to make a website visible to folk these days. Whilst many of the app stores are starting to become quite congested, an app has the potential to gain visibility through app stores in ways that they wouldn’t relying merely on search engines.

To be easily monetized
For services in the revenue from the app category, app stores, in-app purchasing engines and in-app advertising services have the ability to remove a stack of systems and process complexity from the developer to be able to get revenue in from an app that might not be the case in a browser-based service.

To notify
Devices these days are becoming increasingly personal, and increasingly intimate. Mechanisms that are built within device operating systems to allow apps to notify their owners about things (like the Live Tiles features in the new Windows devices) give the opportunity for brands and app owners to be able to have intimate snippets of conversations with their customers in ways that traditional direct marketing routes just don’t achieve.

Having said that, one fears that these channels will become terribly over-used and abused in the coming years so they will end up as just more spam…

To begin a reciprocal relationship
One of my holiday reading books was an examination of the psychology of influence. The first topic covered was that of reciprocation – how give and take forms a crucial part of influence (particularly in the run up to a sale). An app is a tangible thing in a way that a website isn’t – and as such, giving an app to a consumer could form the start of a reciprocal relationship that ultimately leads to a sale.

The last two reasons, notification and reciprocity, I think are neatly illustrated in an App that the Japanese clothing company Uniqlo have developed called Wake Up. On the face of it, it’s merely an alarm clock app; but when you think about how it is a useful, nicely designed gift, and also looks to be able to communicate with customers in just about the most intimate of ways – by waking them up – it strikes me as being a really clever use of an app to be able to help influence their customers.

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