For many online communities, especially those with members who are busy or don't have consistent access to a desktop or laptop, mobile engagement is a critical part of their online community strategy.
When a business or association decides that in order to keep their customers, employees, partners, or members engaged they need a mobile app that extends their online community, they are soon faced with the decision to develop a native app (the kind you find in an app store) or a mobile web app that uses the phone's browser.
With mobile trends seemingly shifting weekly, where should your organization come down on this strategic investment? Well, here is your crystal ball. The following are basic trends in online community mobile apps, useful in selecting the right type of mobile app for your online community.
Cost of Online Community Mobile Apps
Increasingly companies and associations are selecting a mobile app based on their business strategy first, rather than design or latest consumer app features. HTML5 mobile apps are much less expensive to create and maintain than their app store cousins.
Along with the dramatically lower development and maintenance cost of custom web apps, organizations that engage in mobile commerce through product sales, event purchases, or content subscriptions have growing concerns over Apple's swelling encroachment into their profit margins. According to famed usability guru Jakob Nielsen's February 2012 useit.com article on mobile app trends, “Freedom from censorship and freedom to keep your own money are good reasons to stay with the free Internet instead of the walled garden of proprietary app stores.”
Usability of Online Community Mobile Apps
Historically, the reason companies and associations chose to have more expensive native apps developed was the superior user experience compared with mobile web sites. However, this has changed in the past couple years. With the growth and support of HTML5 on all major smartphone platforms, web apps have just about caught up to proprietary native apps. Though a few functions remain exclusive to native “app store apps,” that number is shrinking every quarter.
While you'll still find ugly, unusable, and functionally basic app in both app stores and on the mobile web, modern mobile apps built using HTML5 rival the usability and engagement options of native apps today.
Large organizations are starting to make the switch. The useit.com article says that, “We're already seeing mobile sites from publishers such as the Financial Times and Playboy with UIs that are very similar to applications offered by equivalent newspapers and magazines.”
Compatibility of Online Community Mobile Apps
As mobile device makers try to find ways to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, they create slightly different requirements for the interface and layout of their mobile apps. According to Nielsen's usability article, “At a minimum, you'll have to support Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Furthermore, many of these platforms will likely fork into multiple subplatforms that require different apps for a decent user experience.”
This means that companies or associations offering native smartphone and tablet apps to a technically-diverse user base must create and maintain development over time for a couple versions of Apple's iOS platform, as well as several versions of Google's Android operating system. According to Nielsen, the continued growth in user interface diversity will make native “app store apps” very expensive to provide to your customer or members.
In contrast, mobile web apps are able to provide an effective mobile user experience, regardless of deivce, based on a single set of code. HTML5 also gives mobile web apps the ability to resize to fit disparate and slightly modified mobile device screens.
Organizations also have to consider the user experience of finding, downloading, and updating their app. Sending busy or non-technical users to different app stores with a unique download, installation, and update processes depending on the type of phone can wreak havoc on your customer service and technical support teams, not to mention your customers' or members' impression of your brand.
Mobile Community Takeaway
In the near future, HTML web apps will be hands-down a better strategic decision for a majority of organizations. For many companies and associations, that future is now. Your organization has to make this critical decision on the basis of what is best for your business, what is best for your target audience, and what is best for your staff.
However, I want to leave you with one important point. In 1999, Jakob Nielsen predicted that, “the Internet will defeat smaller, closed environments.” We saw this come true with AOL's collapse as well as the failure of record companies and movie studios to control every last byte of their content in a world based on people linking to other people's content.
In the height of native app fervor, one might not have believed that the “app store app” could ever be rivaled by a more open platform. Given, the evidence of comparable usability, better integration with other websites and 3rd party applications such as event or conference apps, and more efficient compatibility, it seems as though lower cost HTML5 web apps are here to stay and will soon be the standard of the future for online communities. The question is: On which side of this strategic decision will your organization be when this future arrives?