Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen have been publicly debating Apple’s decision to exclude Adobe Flash as a platform that developers can use to build applications for Apple’s mobile devices (iPhone, iPod and iPad).
This decision has both frustrated and enraged many in the application development community since some argue it makes cross-device application creation and maintenance harder and more costly. Adobe now faces some hard decisions since this move could significantly damage the platform’s relevance for mobile developers.
The debate is relevant to brand and business owners who are considering how to enter the mobile space because it highlights one of the most significant challenges mobile device application development faces: Native mobile applications, for the most part, require different development for different platforms -- which usually translates into increased management complexity and maintenance costs.
Many business owners resist or have concerns about building native mobile applications because of the development and management complexities involved. After all, it sounds like a lot of these headaches could be circumvented by building a cross platform mobile website.
As valid as these concerns are, there are some very strong reasons to move ahead with native mobile application development with eyes wide open. When brands invest appropriately, native applications can provide a significantly improved experience for your users as well as an immediate relevant new channel to what is potentially your brand’s most lucrative mobile customer base.
Editor's Note: Be sure to read Jason's two-part series on Why Mobile Websites Are Better than Mobile Applications
High Value Customers
I consider customers that adopt native apps “high value” customers because the steps they undertake to get the app installed are so extensive that it demonstrates how much they value your brand. If they will go though all these steps they are also likely to be one of your brands most vocal supporters (or critics).
Many readers are likely used to this process, but if you think about it from a less technical leaning consumer’s perspective: getting a native app on your mobile device is a large time commitment!
Let’s start by thinking about how hard it is to find. First, your user needs to figure out where to get an App. The app store is not as intuitive as one might think -- especially as smart phones are adopted by a less tech savvy demo this could be a big first hurdle.
Once the App store’s been identified, user names created, credit cards entered, there are thousands of apps the user needs to navigate through to find yours. According to a recent article by Walt Mossberg of the WSJ, Apple has about 185,000 third-party apps, and Android has about 30,000 (April 21, 2010).
Your user has taken the time to go to the app store, initiated a search (possibly for your brand), found your app, purchased it (even if it’s free there is a purchase experience) and patiently waited for the download to complete. That’s a pretty big commitment, especially if your app requires a large download.
Interestingly, users can be surprisingly tolerant of large downloads during this process. The reason users will tolerate waiting for large application downloads is that there is a perceived correlation between the size of the download and the quality of product once it is finally on the device.
Optimized User Experience
So, you have won placement on the user’s device, this is where the differentiated experience between a mobile website and native app must shine through if you want to retain placement on the device.
This user has jumped through hoops to access your app and their expectations are going to be higher. They will be expecting better performance, better usability, higher quality design and more functionality.
Each app is going to have different objectives, and there are many ways in which a native app can improve on the user experience so I’ll only mention a few examples here. Of course, if you can suggest more examples on the type of functionality a native app can use to outshine a mobile website please add your thoughts to the comment thread for everyone’s benefit!
Ease of Authentication
Authentication -- login -- is one of those features that helps deliver a personalized experience to your users, but is also a hurdle. Mobile phones are considered personal and product managers and designers who were accustomed to thinking through use cases for multiple users on a family’s desktop computer are certainly glad not to have to tackle those problems on mobile phones.
With the exception of transactional services and other applications for which security is a concern a native app can remove the authentication hurdle from your user’s path, and set up an optimized and more personal experience.
On the personalization front there are also many opportunities to enhance the user experience. Setting preferences based on past usage trends helps make the experience more relevant upon the next visit while showing value to the user by overtly demonstrating personalization benefits through simplified interfaces and reducing steps to accomplish a task. This tailored experience will also help increase the app’s stickiness for content consumption and encourage repeat purchases for commerce-based experiences.
Higher Quality Images and Photo Galleries
Since users are downloading the app, and expect app updates to be standard ongoing maintenance -- you also gain the opportunity to showcase your products through rich imagery. Ideally this is not something that happens with much frequency and it is important that with each update there is incremental value returned from the update.
After all, you are asking your users to work for you by updating the app and each one of your update requests will provide them a decision point to find value in the product and go forth with the update or to decide that there is not enough value (in which case they will remove you from their device).
High Expectations Are Harder To Satisfy
There are many other advantages to be sure -- too many to list in this post. So, once again I ask that you please add your thoughts to the comments on reasons ways native apps can add incremental value over a mobile Web experience.
The good news is that you CAN deliver an optimized user experience with a native app. The bad news is that if you don’t, removing a native app is easy and the app removal rating system will amplify any notions about the app not delivering on expectations.
Make sure you are adding to your brand’s image with the creation of a native app. User expectations are invariably higher and your native app should acknowledge that.