I sat down with Siteworx Founder and President Tim McLaughlin at the Adobe Summit last week to get his views on the whole mobile web vs mobile app debate. His opinion? Hybrid is the ultimate way to go.

The Safe Bet?

...is to stay with web technologies, they will last longer. McLaughlin says that Microsoft is still pecking away with Windows and he thinks it will matter. He also pointed to Android's penetration outside the US and although Apple is the big name now, companies come and go (he's a big fan of Apple by the way).

McLaughlin never thought HTML would have lasted as long as it has, but it has shown itself to be remarkably flexible. Which is why he (and Siteworx) advise mobile web first.

He also suggests to consider a mobile app when dealing with customer support or service -- he's talking  customers here not prospects. Prospects don't usually download your app unless you are getting into entertainment which makes gaming the exception to his advice.

Hybrid Apps are the Best Approach

The best for most native apps, McLaughlin suggests is hybrid apps. Hybrid apps are built using web technologies that exist within an embedded browser component. To build these types of apps you aren't adding new skillsets into your company in a major way. There are some new skillsets required, especially when learning about the mobile touch interfaces, but the core skills Html5, CSS and JavaScript you already have if you maintain a website.

What about that nice little icon you get on your mobile device when you have a native app? Well you get that too with a hybrid app. Hybrid apps look just like native apps (or at least they should). McLaughlin was told that a large organization running one of the largest app stores has 50% hybrid apps. So it's not like hybrid apps are something new, they are there (take Netflix for example).

The trouble is, according to McLaughlin, organizations will set up a mobile app group and go out and hire developers to create essentially mobile versions of their content (like Android, iOS). Integrating these different channels into your content system can cause major headaches (think content integrity, customer experience). He's seen customers build native apps only to rip the code out of those apps and turn them into hybrid apps integrated with the content management systems.

There are many options (including open source options) to build hybrid apps. Adobe acquired PhoneGap ( PhoneGap's source code is open sourced via the Apache Foundation) which lets you use Html5, CSS and JavaScript to create an entirely native app with only web technologies. You have to learn the JavaScript files for mobile devices and get your Html5 skills in hand, but like McLaughlin says, you don't have to learn something more complex like Objective C.

McLaughlin is clear to point out that you do have to remember to optimize your hybrid app for native phones, otherwise you are presenting a basic website inside an app and that doesn't really make a lot of sense (and could tick off your customer).

Typical things you might look for in a hybrid app:

  • Automatic log in
  • Access to the camera
  • GPS (although you can actually use GPS functions in a web app)

Native Apps Can Be Expensive

Can you do analytics with native apps? Can you change your content really easily? The answer is not really, which is why native apps aren't the right option. McLauglin says that native apps basically recreate all the problems we had with the original web that content management systems undid. So why they would anyone want to expose themselves to the pain of a truly native app? Think hybrid.

Editor's Note: Check out Jon Mark's view on the Mobile App vs Web Approach