A little over four years ago I wrote a post that explored what, at the time, appeared to be some reasonably good reasons why a business might want to produce a native mobile app over and above delivering their services through a web browser.
The context of my writing that post were a bit different to today. I was heading towards the end of a difficult couple of years working for Microsoft, and was attempting at the time to try to convince marketing and digital agencies that they should be producing “modern” Windows applications for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. It was a very hard sell, especially as at the time the discussion about developing for three platforms (iOS, Android and Web) was posing difficult questions already about cost and maintainability.
The Native App v Web App is still a debate, although these days I feel a bit more remote from it. My concerns these days are from the other side: when managing technology within an organisation, what sorts of strategies should an organisation adopt? When should applications be installed over being delivered through a browser?
The original Seven Reasons that I identified back in 2013 provide as good a starting point as any…
1. Providing me a service whenever, wherever
Whilst 4G coverage has become more pervasive since I wrote the original piece, the ability to connect to a network is still patchy as one travels around the UK. On my half-hour train journey into London on the suburban network there are two or three patches where data and voice services cut out completely. And that’s a journey exclusively within Greater London.
I would still see that email clients are the benchmark for applications handling this scenario well. Email is downloaded and cached locally; if I’m notified of a message I can access it at a point when I’m no longer connected (although attachments might have to wait); if I send a message it is stored and uploaded seamlessly in the background.
I’m frequently infuriated by apps like Twitter and LinkedIn on Android by this point, though. Notifications will be downloaded, often with a bit of the relevant message, but if you try to connect whilst, say, on a tube train between stations, you’ll be confronted with a “no network” error. Mobile apps that don’t allow you access when you disconnected infuriate me.
But there is a broader issue here, and that is that some application types make no sense in a disconnected mode. Does a real-time collaboration platform say like an instant messaging client have any meaningful “offline” mode? (Maybe access to historical conversations, but…)
When you then start to use real-time collaborative document editing tools like Google G-Suite you then understand that meaningful use of those tools in a multi-party context is very hard offline. Google have struggled to make offline access to Google Docs, Sheets and Slides a thing over many years, usually as a sop to Microsoft Office users who want access offline. It might be that in doing so they break the competitive advantage of their Cloud product.
2. Making my device sing
Earlier this year, after many years of using Chromebook exclusively, I shifted my main device back to a Windows device. I did this with heavy heart; I love the clean simplicity of ChromeOS, and I’m wedded to web applications for my day-to-day work. But the launch of the WB-40 Podcast meant that I needed to get back into audio editing, and despite a valiant attempt for the first few episodes of editing in Android apps, I eventually fell back to using the audio processing capabilities of a fatter OS and fatter applications.
That can work both ways. Many of the apps I use the most on my phone are those that take advantage of its capabilities – from GPS and gyros to the camera and fingerprint sensor. These are things that need a local, native application (despite advances in the ability for web applications to access hardware through HTML5).
In a business context, there may well be many ways in which the hardware capabilities of a device can be used through a native application to create functionality of huge business benefit. But I can tell you now, that won’t be through your ERP system.
3. Allowing me to make payments easily (and with trust)
Back in 2013 I was thinking about this in the context of ease of commerce, and there’s no doubt that I spend a fair bit of money through the Android Amazon, Kindle and Sainsbury’s apps. But there again, I spend a fair bit of money through those equivalent websites too, and I don’t enter my credit card details every time on any of them.
Where my life has changed is since last summer and the introduction of Android Pay. A huge amount of my spending in the physical world has shifted to the tap-and-pay simplicity of waving my phone about. You couldn’t do that with a web application.
Using NFC and an app as a means of identification and authentication in the future could be really interesting. If I can use my phone to get through the barriers at a Tube station, then why not at the barriers in an office block?
4. Making things easier because of where I am
Location-aware apps on mobile devices are there, but still seem unsophisticated to me. Google Now will tell me information about transport in my location, and what the weather’s doing. Facebook tells me when people I know are near me.
But there are flaws. Google can tell me the train times at the nearest station, but if I go to Spain it suddenly thinks that my main language is Spanish. Facebook doesn’t understand that whilst 3 miles might be “close” in US geographical terms, in London that can be half a day of travelling.
When it comes to geo-location in business applications, on a PC device I struggle to see what an app can give over and above what a location-aware web application might deliver.
5. Whispering in my ear
Four years ago, browser-based notifications weren’t a thing. Now they are. Web apps now have parity with their native cousins in being able to subtly (or not so subtly) notify their users.
6. Giving me undivided attention
Funny one, this. At the time it was how a mobile app on a phone or tablet could take over the whole screen in a way that multi-windowed desktop applications or browsers couldn’t. These days mobile operating systems are trying to do multiple windows…
7. Giving me gifts
This point was aimed squarely at the digital marketing community; that an app had a tangible gift-like nature to it that a web site doesn’t. Not sure this applies in the world of business technology quite in the same way.
So what do we learn? What’s a good case for a locally-installed business application over and above a browser-based thing? My hunch:
- To provide offline access to functionality in a service that isn’t inherently network-based (but don’t make offline versions of things that make no sense to be disconnected)
- To use hardware functions and features that are unavailable through the browser
I’m still a really big fan of browser-only services. Well responsively designed Web apps can do more or less everything an app can, with the two caveats above.