Native Mobile Apps vs. Web Mobile Apps is Not a Feature War

While reading my much-loved Flipboard today, I came across an article in the Wired section from Webmonkey called How Do Native Apps and Web Apps Compare? Having worked in both mobile native and web apps, this is a topic very near and dear to my heart. It’s slightly biased towards the mobile web, but the comments in the article keep the overall content as a fair comparison. Definitely worth a read.

Out of the over 15 feature vs feature comparisons, one point stuck out to me in particular:

The Issue Native Web
Can I sell it? Charge whatever you want. Most app distributors take a slice, up to 30% Advertising is tolerated, subscriptions and paywalls less so. No distribution costs beyond server fees

Can you name even 1 mobile web app that makes any sort of money with a subscription or paywall? I can’t think of any, but I’m willing to admit that there’s probably one out there somewhere. Compare that to thousands inside the iTunes app store that make very very good money – even small-time indy developers. If you want to charge for your app, there’s currently one option: native.

But native apps aren’t winning the war because they have the best user experience (they do), but because they are easy to buy, easy to install, and easy to update. The user gets a fantastic purchase experience, and most importantly, the developer gets paid per download. All of this works because Apple already has the user’s credit card info, and it’s literally a 1 click install from iTunes or the iPhone. What’s more, the purchase experience is also the exact same for every application. The combination of simplicity for purchase + consistency of purchase + trusted seller means much much higher trust and repeat rate from the user.

Contrast this with the web. Every web app developer has to solve the “how do we process payments” problem. They have to create their own unique purchase workflow. And most importantly, they have to independently gain the trust of the user before the purchase. I love Doodle Jump as much as the next guy, but does anything think that they’d fill out a 2 page credit card form on an indy developer website for a $0.99 app that runs in the browser? It wouldn’t be 3 million people, I promise you that much.

Users don’t have a simple, consistent, and trustworthy way to purchase mobile web apps. Similarly, developers don’t have a simple, trustworthy, unified market to sell their apps in. There is way too much friction for developers to go to market, and way too much friction for users to purchase from the market.

All features being equal, for the mobile web to ever be a serious contender, the problem of “how do I as a developer make money?” and “how do I as a consumer trust this developer w/ my $$ info” needs to be solved.

If my name was Amazon.com, I know what I’d be working on right about now. Amazon already has payment info for nearly 70 million users compared to the 40 million iPhones in the market, and they’re in a fantastic place to host the mobile web app marketplace. It’s trusted, it’s simple, and it sells just about everything except mobile apps. It’s a pefect fit.

Once this problem is solved, and it will eventually be solved, only then will mobile web apps be able to compete with their native counterparts.

Bug Fixes for wpSearchMu WordPress Plugin

Just a quick note that version 2.1.2 of the wpSearchMu plugin went live today. I’ve fixed a fairly common “Uncaught exception Zend_Search_Lucene_Exception” problem that would crop up and require an index rebuild. After you update, you shouldn’t see that error anymore.

I’ve also added a few checks to make sure that the plugin is installed in the correct location. Quite a few people aren’t installing to the mu-plugins folder, and that was causing some index inconsistencies and errors.

Head over to the wpSearchMu page to download the latest version!

Mobile Apps: User Expectations define User Experience

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how users’ expectations of an app affect the user experience, especially as it relates to mobile development.

As an example: the native Google Maps iPhone app vs the mobile web Maps app.

Both are fantastic apps in their own right, but why are they both awesome apps? The native app is clearly faster to launch, it handles pinch-zoom fluidly, address and bookmark integration, transitions between views keep my context with nice animations. The mobile web app has none of that. It’s slower, the map loads slower, zoom and pan aren’t as fluid, transitions between views are non-existent. All things being equal, the native app is the clear winner, yet my user experience is overall positive for both apps. Why?

Before either app is even launched, the user expectation for each app is properly set to provide that positive user experience.

When a user fires up maps.google.com in Mobile Safari, they’re blown away with how well it responds to touch input – even pan and zoom! Compared to the other mostly static websites the user visits, this sorta-native-but-not-quite Maps experience is down-right-to-die-for! It’s amazing!

Now as a thought experiment, take that same web Maps app, wrap it in a native Objective-C wrapper, and put it on the App Store. Suddenly the experience is quite different. Compared to the native app, why on hell’s earth would I ever download this? It’s slower than its native counterpart, choppier, no animated transitions, no address book integration, etc. It feels downright amateur next to the real thing. The app hasn’t changed, the user’s expectations of the app have changed – and that changes everything!

When a user downloads – better yet, purchases – a native application, they are expecting a native experience. The user experience of this hybrid app is far less than the web app alone, and it’s all because of user expectations. Users are no longer subconsciously comparing your app to webpages in Mobile Safari, they’re comparing it to Tweetie, Flipboard, or Angry Birds. The stakes have been raised, the expectations have been raised, and the baseline user experience needs to be better.

This isn’t a dig at web or even hybrid apps, far from it, it’s an observation that to provide the best possible user experience, one of the most important decisions to make is where and how to set that baseline user expectation. This user expectation will play a large part in defining the quality of an app’s user experience.

This is true not just of web vs native vs hybrid development, but even the app’s icon and branding quality, website and marketing material, support, email response and cordiality, everything that the user sees before the app is even launched. The user experience of an app – good or bad – can be almost entirely decided before an app’s development has even started.

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