Which is better -- develop platform-specific mobile applications or mobile web applications? There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. So what's the right one? Let's have a look.

Mobile applications are nothing new. Hundreds of thousands ofproductivity, gaming, utility and entertainment apps abound in storessuch as Apple’s iTunes or Salesforce.com’s AppExchange, available forfree or at varying price points. Apps redefined usability andinteraction on mobile phones -- especially touchscreen devices, andnowadays, tablets. But this comfort comes at a price: maintenance,development and distribution costs with a dependence on app stores andthe continual install and update cycle.

Clearly organizations are realizing the growing importance of the mobile Web channel as a way to build brand awareness and customer loyalty, yet many are unaware that there are new, innovative approaches to the native mobile app which leverage the browser and make it considerably easier to engage consumers across the exponential number of mobile devices.  

The Native Way

Previously, organizations looking to interact with mobile customers had one option -- build a native mobile app that would be available for download for free or at a cost via an online app store. Customers would need to find, select and install the app, and occasionally download updates.

One of the pre-requisites with this approach is the extensive infrastructure that is required for basic distribution and maintenance updates. And beyond the distribution infrastructure, organizations need to create customized versions of the app for each of the mobile platforms on which it will run (Android, Mac O/S, RIM, etc.), which in turn also requires individual updates for end-users to install and refresh.

While the native mobile app model has its challenges, some advantages include the ability for many apps to function in offline mode, or for apps to be customized to leverage the specific device capabilities for a great user experience.

iPhone apps, for example, can include the ability to notice the tilt angle or motion of the device and adjust accordingly -- think of pinball machine video games or the practical level tool app available for many touchscreen phones. 

In addition, there can be financial benefits for certain industries such as media and entertainment, where native apps can create a revenue stream whereby customers pay for the application to consume free online content such as news or videos.

Enter the Browser

Despite some of these benefits, a native app approach isn’t the most efficient for many companies. Businesses needed an easier way to deliver customized experiences on any mobile device without the overhead of creation, distribution and maintenance of a native application.

Another way to tackle mobile marketing is to redesign how to look at the challenge. Rather than taking an app approach, you can look at it as providing a mobile web experience. By leveraging the browser on mobile devices as a gateway to instantly deliver a customized experience to consumers, the mobile Web app is allowing businesses to engage users in a more cost effective, efficient manner.Thanks to HTML 5 and Java Script, an application’s functionalities can be easily replicated via the browser, without the need for the underlying infrastructure of a native application.

The Benefits of Mobile Web Applications

So what are the benefits? For users, they don’t have to download an application or any maintenance updates, but instead “call up” a URL via their mobile browser which instantly delivers the most up-to-date application to their device. The URL can then be bookmarked like a local app on their device desktop for repeat use. In cases where users just want a one-off interaction with an app, they receive immediate access without a download, while organizations capitalize on a one-time opportunity to excite their audience.

Another benefit is that even non-finger touch devices like Blackberry or Nokia would be able to run and access the functionality and content of a Web app, since only touchscreen device like the Android, iPhone/iPad, etc. can run native apps. And with HTML 5, Web app content is available even in offline mode so users can still access the app when they do not have cell reception or are connected to a Wi-Fi network. HTML 5 even allows the content and pictures of the app to be adjusted based on the connection a user has -- be it Wi-Fi, 3G/4G or offline.

Learning Opportunities

The benefits for organizations are even greater since they can immediately deliver existing Web content from a Web page to a mobile device in a highly customized manner that takes into consideration the individual consumer preferences and their specific mobile device parameters, which is also beneficial to the end user.

This is done by creating an abstraction layer between the mobile device platform and the Web app that defines platform-specific experiences in a platform-independent manner, giving incomparable freedom and flexibility to the appearance and structure of content.

Current technologies allow Web content to be automatically adapted to the characteristics of over 11,000 mobile devices, whereby the content and layout of a website is adjusted to the unique capabilities of a mobile access device, such as navigation concepts, screen sizes, browsers, markups and multimedia format. And considering that an average website is accessed by up to one thousand different types of devices, each with their individual settings and limitations, there is a definite need for content to be optimized by device.

What’s even more impressive is that website editors, online marketers and non-technical business users can use their existing experience and knowledge from working with WCMS to customize content by leveraging the custom interaction patterns and strengths of each device, to adapt to a consumer’s “context” -- the interaction between the user, the device, the environment and the Web content itself.

Another significant advantage for businesses is that instead of having to develop applications for each device platform, only one app is built and delivered to all platforms, which is designed and operated like a native application for a truly context-aware, consistent Web experience from a single source.

And The Winner Is?

Given the obvious advantages and disadvantages to both native apps and Web apps for delivering engaging online experiences to customers via mobile devices, organizations need to closely evaluate their business objectives, resources and customer communications goals when selecting between the two approaches.

Neither approach is a silver bullet, instead they complement each other and should both be part of the portfolio an organization uses to engage with customers on mobile touchpoints.One thing is clear though, as mobile connectivity grows more pervasive, the customer will come out the winner.

Editor's Note: Additional articles on the Mobile Enterprise include: