Although Nielsen figures indicate that Android and iOS native mobile app users more than doubled the amount of time they spent with apps in March 2012 compared to March 2011, the top 50 apps captured 58% of that time. According to a new report from eMarketer, this indicates the necessity for native mobile apps to contain features that drive user engagement.

Enjoying the Mobile App Experience

The 58% figure is actually a decrease from the 74% of time Nielsen research shows mobile app users devoted to the top 50 apps in 2011, but still reflects how the increasing demands on users’ time results in their carefully selecting which apps to engage with. eMarketer advises that “app users are drawn to the encapsulated experience that improves content delivery and draws on the hardware features of smart devices.”

In contrast, mobile websites, which Nielsen data indicates have only grown 44% in usage during the past year, act more like scaled-down versions of traditional websites, although eMarketer says the increasing functionality of HTML5 may eventually close the gap between the performance of mobile websites and native mobile apps.

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Experts Say Consider Mobile Web, Hybrid Apps

Despite data showing mobile user engagement with native apps is growing far more rapidly than that with mobile web, in a March 2012 interview with CMSWire, Siteworx Founder and President Tim McLaughlin said the “safe bet” is to stay with web technologies because they will last longer. McLaughlin never thought HTML would have lasted as long as it has, but it has shown itself to be remarkably flexible. He also suggested considering a mobile app when dealing with customer support or service (existing customers, not prospects).

In addition, McLaughlin suggested the best option for most native apps is hybrid apps that are built using web technologies that exist within an embedded browser component. To build these types of apps you aren't adding new skill sets into your company in a major way. There are some new skill sets required, especially when learning about the mobile touch interfaces, but the core skills of HTML5, CSS and JavaScript already exist for a company maintaining a traditional website. McLaughlin warned that native mobile apps do not easily allow analytics or content changes and are expensive.

In a February 2012 CMSWire guest columnist, GX Software CTO Martjin van Berkum also advised companies to pursue mobile web and hybrid app strategies, rather than develop native mobile apps. “Mobile web…isn't that hard a problem to approach if you have a solid infrastructure for external facing websites. Just create an "m.company.com" domain, reuse your content, structure and processes to create a ‘mini version’ of your larger regular website, and you’re good to go,” he said. van Berkum also advised the creation of hybrid apps, such as making navigational menus native, but when a part of content is shown, using HTML5 for showing the content.

In contrast, van Berkum said that native apps pose challenges including difficulty in offering personalization, tracking and consistent cross-platform user experience. Based on data showing the popularity of native apps, clearly companies cannot ignore them, but they should follow the advice of seasoned mobile experts by carefully choosing what native apps to develop and offering hybrid apps to capture the best of both models whenever possible.