Does your online business really need an iPhone App?
So, mobile is the next big thing!….Well, if the next big thing is a more compact way of viewing the web on the go then yes. However there is nothing new here, all that’s really happened is screens have got smaller, batteries lighter and communication wireless.
So… Are iPhone Apps the future, should all online businesses have one?
The problem with iPhone App production is the amount of time, effort, skill and cost it takes to develop, never mind the fact that the code cannot be re-used for other mobile devices! Added to this there are a variety of restrictions as well as an approval process to go through before an application is published. Apple maintains full control over the applications we use and the methods used to develop them, if the app were to prevail it could stem true web censorship! Mobile software companies will make the decisions as to what they feel is suitable for their brand and its users. Dare I say it but evidence of this can be found by the pure lack of ‘adult content’ applications in the App Store… Not that I would download one, but surely one of the biggest industries should have a presence in the world’s largest mobile application store? In fact, Apple originally blocked 3rd party MMS applications as they refused to support MMS on their native OS 1 and 2. Clever developers got around this by building mobile sites that looked and functioned like applications and allowed its users to send media messages via the ‘virtual’ online app.
I don’t see online business app’s being the future, not in the form of the App Store anyway. I see the future being sites and ‘virtual’ applications that are open to all mobile devices. I think the sheer ‘coolness’ of an iPhone App has pushed online businesses into rushing out applications. This urgent need for an iPhone App has stolen the focus from offering a service that can be used by the entire mobile market. Surely time would have been better spent building a truly mobile site which is supported by pretty much all devices? As far as the user is concerned an iPhone mobile site can function and look exactly the same as an application, even down to the icon saved on their home screen, so usability is not an issue here.
Effectively the code used to develop mobile sites is the same code we have been using to develop websites for years, so unlike the iPhone App, here exists a common codebase that can serve all makes and models and best of all no new skills have to be learned to develop them. The iPhone is by far the most popular mobile device being used to surf the web, this is no doubt down to its ingenious browser and hardware that is great at adapting to sites built for desktops. Surely if all online businesses provided a website that offers a great user experience on any device, then mobile browsing would spread beyond the iPhone and as a result reach a far greater audience.
Another problem with the iPhone App is how limited it is when it comes to app discovery, as app production increases this will only get worse, unless your app is in the top 50 of its category its unlikely to be found unless the user knows what to search for. It’s safe to say that the majority of new users brought to your business are likely to come from a search engine and not the App Store. It’s also likely that the user will be unaware when visiting your site that you have an application available, even if they do, they will need to close their browser, open the App Store, search for the application, download it, then launch it…. That’s only if the user has an iPhone and a 3g or WiFi signal. Surely it would be better to instantly present the user with a site optimized for their device without the need to discover your app and install it.
Is there a place for the App?
Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely a place for Apps. Gaming is a huge industry and currently it fits in very well with the app market. I own an iPhone and have downloaded over 100 applications, most of which are either tools or games, so I am definitely a fan! However, I cannot see the app being a long term success for traditional online businesses.
What should I do?
For immediate impact and some short term PR an iPhone App may be a good idea, however my advice would be to spend time making your website truly browser friendly for all mobile devices. Another thing to consider, which I will expand on in my next Blogg, is a public API. By opening up an API you give 3rd party developers the opportunity to build apps around your site, this is often the case for apps that aggregate content from a variety of websites, 3rd party developers tend to develop these apps at their own expense as they can profit from app sales. Although a 3rd party will be handling your data, you can control your brand and its use with a strict set of guidelines. A company that does this very well is last.fm. Just be aware, if the 3rd party app links back to your website, you wont want to disappoint your potential customer by not having a site optimised for their mobile.
If your direct target market is not necessarily an iPhone user, then develop your mobile site before you develop the app. A mobile site will give you access to a far greater user base and in the long-term will serve as a better investment.
So, what could the future hold?
With adobe flash CS5 coming out in a few weeks time, we will see a huge rise in iPhone App production. The new Flash platform will allow developers to easily build iPhone Apps using code most already know, so if you think the App Store is saturated now, then prepare yourself for a complete app overload! This overload will only make it harder for your app to be discovered, unless of course search engines decide to index applications. (Not sure Google would support this as it would effectively compete with their android platform)
However, the app as we know it may not be around for long. If cloud computing is the future then locally stored applications will be a thing of the past. Our desktops and mobile devices will just be a browser, software will be accessed via the web and content will be truly accessible by all, regardless of the make and model of the device being used.