One perk of the job in Swrve is spending a lot of time working with mobile businesses - or businesses moving to mobile - on the broader questions of mobile strategy. And one debate that surfaces frequently is reasonably well summarised in the title: “Which is best? Focusing on mobile internet or building a native mobile app? Or will I have to do both?”

It’s true to say that in many cases those decisions have not been made yet, or if they have they are not truly settled. That’s no surprise. In many cases there is certainly a trade off to be made, and different parts of the organization may have radically different views of what is important and what isn’t. But at Swrve we believe that other than in some very specific circumstances the correct answer to this question is always either “Mobile App” or “Both”. The rest of this short post will explain why, but in the interests of fairness let’s start by looking at the arguments in favor of focusing development effort on the mobile internet.

Why The Mobile Internet Is A Seductive Development Option

It is extremely easy to see why many organizations desperately want to settle on mobile internet as their core mobile strategy. Mobile internet can be controlled, edited, managed etc in the same way as desktop internet. It avoids the awkwardness of keeping two channels up-to-date. We don’t need to replicate our entire online product when mobile optimization does the job for us. At the risk of generalizing, the CTO and CFO might find a lot of these arguments extremely convincing. Mobile internet is easy and cheap.

Let us add one more argument: mobile internet is a vital channel when it comes to discovery. Users share links via social media or otherwise, and people sometimes simply want to browse to a location and assume they’ll get what they need. They don’t expect a blank page and an invitation to download an app.

So far so good. However, something being ‘easy’ is rarely a good reason to take any course of action. There’s only one real problem with the mobile internet first strategy: mobile internet sucks and consumers hate it. Don’t take my word for it, remind yourself of the dog’s dinner a typical mobile web browsing experience involves. When many large organizations still don’t seem capable of building truly responsive mobile experiences, it puts off the entire population from spending large amounts of time on mobile internet. And so they don’t - six times as much time is spent in mobile apps as on mobile internet.

Mobile Internet In A Competitive World

Let’s take a full truth as self-evident. The native mobile experience is better. It is faster, slicker and supports richer interactions than mobile internet. It also has the non-trivial benefit of placing a permanent reminder of your brand on the home screen of the smartphone.

Given that is the case, there is absolutely nothing complicated about it. In a world in which most people have hundreds of apps on their phone and limited amounts of time, they aren’t in the business of spending that time with organizations that think sub-optimal user experiences are ‘good enough’. If you’re not on mobile app, then sooner or later your customers will find someone providing the same service who is. And when that happens, it is terminal.

Compromising user experience for the sake of short-term expediency is the single most dangerous mistake any mobile organization can make. On that basis, it is imperative to have a mobile app strategy and focus real resources on mobile app development. That doesn’t mean that mobile internet has gone away (it hasn’t), but it means we’ve narrowed down the answer to our original question to either “mobile app alone” or “both app and internet”.

Do I Need Both?

There’s a reasonably simple answer to this question, hinted at above. If you rely on discovery via social channels and you feel downloading the app is too much for many casual visitors, you need both. If you are are a fundamentally mobile-first business (Uber, Venmo etc), then just the app is probably good enough.

In the first category you will find a lot of media companies, financial institutions, travel companies and retailers. In the second, new entrants into multiple vertical categories that use their total mobile focus as a USP. But it must be recognized by the first group that they are always under threat from the second. It remains the case that wherever possible they must attempt to get users into the app - which is why a visitor via mobile internet is almost always asked to download the app. Not only is an app user better in terms of ongoing engagement (for media companies, for example), but is also experiencing a superior experience that protects them from the competition.

So in most cases - both, yes, but the emphasis should always be on the mobile app.

The Changing Technical Landscape

One final note. What is possible continues to change, and change rapidly. The smartphone is of course a mere 10 years old, and we remain in the relative infancy of this technology. A couple of trends may well tilt the balance either way. In the mobile internet corner, increasing internet speeds and bandwidth, alongside ever more sophisticated UX options, can be expected to improve performance and experience.

In the mobile app corner, the emerging trend towards ‘instant apps’ looks set to mean that native app experience can be delivered seamlessly from the mobile internet. What that in effect means is that on mobile, the days of the HTML internet as we know it may be numbers. Individual mobile users will of course feel that they are using mobile internet - but the businesses and organizations they interact with are simply delivering native app content through that channel.

If native apps take off (certainly something of an ‘if’ at present), the discoverability of mobile internet will be combined with the superior UX of the app - and compromise will become unnecessary. All development will be native, but the method of delivery will vary. That’s something to look forward to!