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Can the Mobile Web and Native Apps get along?
Can the Mobile Web and Native Apps get along?
By: iMedia News Bureau

We've had convenient, front-row seats to an epic battle unfolding across the mobile landscape as iOS and Android fanboys alike join forces against a re-born threat: mobile-optimized websites. But wasn't the whole mobile web thing supposed to be dead already?

Anyone in the mobile industry can tell you that native apps tend to be flashier, sexier, and more consistently in demand than their mobile web counterparts. You know the drill: If you're not prominent in the App Store, your brand is in trouble.

Unlike mobile browsers, native apps have UI/UX standards and limitless pages of documentation with community resources. Sane programmers demand stable code specifications, and anyone who cares about innovation demands a decent developer toolkit.

Most of all, native apps are explosively popular because they feed every client's desire to hear "yes." You want a fully immersive-augmented-reality-social-gaming-cloud-platformed-app with Twitter integration? It's yours. You want to continue using your app with no cell service on the subway? Just switch to airplane mode and enjoy. You want to simultaneously use the camera, mic, accelerometer, and GPS? Why not! Our technology doesn't hold you back.

Is there really a contest between the two?

The usual pro-mobile web argument is logical, but it has gone stale. We'll admit that it's tempting to call out the ridiculous number of native apps that could have been done twice as fast, three times cheaper, and worked on four times the number of platforms if they utilized HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript instead. It's also easy to point out how updates to mobile sites are instantaneous, global, and -- ahem -- immune to App Store censorship. But who needs to resort to below-the-belt blows? Let's stick to the reality of the mobile experience.

We'd argue that yes, there is a bit of a contest -- but it's not one that definitively pits mobile web against native apps. It's a contest between unnecessary native apps, misguided mobile sites, and their legitimate counterparts.

The mobile web absolutely has a place in this landscape; however, that place isn't to compete with native app functionality. In the rush to produce the next big app, the development community lost focus on the web's slow-growing potential. Although well-designed and properly-coded mobile sites are few and far between, they're an increasingly viable option for many clients, due in part to the temptingly low barriers to entry and ease of integration.

So what does mobile web done right look like?

  • Responsive design techniques and fluid layouts to allow a site's design to elegantly expand and collapse between the varying screen sizes of desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones -- all with the same easy-to-maintain code base.
  • Exponentially reduced development time, effort, and costs. Instead of using several teams to create multiple independent apps, one team can deploy a single mobile site across those same platforms.
  • Recognition that feature phones, while often overlooked, still make up the vast majority of devices sold worldwide. It's easy to give users access to a gracefully degraded version of your site, and it's a must-have when there are no alternatives.
  • Focus on supporting WebKit-based smartphones (a popular and surprisingly rational decision) -- the length of your bug list, number of maintenance issues, size of your code base, and number of IE-related stress breakdowns drops dramatically.
  • Use of cutting-edge HTML5 and CSS3 features to create lightweight designs that frequently load faster than native counterparts. Native device functionality is getting easier to utilize -- just look at geo-location or slick hardware-accelerated CSS3 animations.
  • Optimize for mobile use behaviors with quick page load times, large tap sizes, and a simple navigational structure to instantly make your mobile site the logical choice in any context where speed is essential. Mobile users rarely give devices their full attention, so assume your visitors are using one thumb and one eye. Quick page load times, large tap sizes, and a simple navigational structure will instantly make your mobile site the logical choice in any context where speed is essential.

Everything comes down to situational appropriateness. Finding information and completing simple tasks that require connectivity are perfect for mobile sites. Face it; nobody's going to spend several minutes downloading your app just to get your company's contact info or read a short article. On the other hand, native apps are the clear winner in situations where utilizing native UI patterns or device functionality will greatly enhance the user experience. Leave your buzzword-friendly "web apps" at home. More often than not, they're square pegs in round holes.

When the end-user experience determines the end goal, there's rarely a mobile versus native contest. One platform may never be the definitive answer, so let go of the one-size-fits-all notion and step into the shoes of your user.

Colleen O'Banion is designer/front-end engineer for Übermind, Inc. She even writes on iMedia & this article originally appears here