How to choose between Native Apps or the Responsive Web?

In the second article of how CTO’s can create a framework for enterprises to adopt mobile for growth we look at one of the early decisions to be made - that is choosing to build native apps or adopt the responsive web. In case you missed it, the previous article in the series discusses why a CTO makes or breaks your enterprise mobile strategy and discusses briefly the decisions that need to be taken within an enterprise to embrace mobile as a key part of its growth.

Multiple sources of statistics show (see image below from Flurry) that mobile apps usage is crushing mobile web usage. However it is critical to understand that broad statistics don’t mean that native apps are right for you - the decision is a little more complicated.


The Basic Considerations

When deciding whether to go native or responsive there are some common considerations you need to know.

Native apps generally have a better user experience. They have access to core device level features. They tend to be snappier and feel faster. They can be more visually appealing and easier to the user since they leverage design patterns optimized for the mobile device. They can also work offline, which is great for many classes of apps.

Yet all these advantages come with, potentially, significant cost. Native apps tend to be much more difficult to build and maintain. You may need to support multiple platforms such as iOS and Android both of which require more specialized engineering and testing skills. You have to deploy these apps through the platform app stores, which means certification cycles. You’ll end up with deployed software (potentially on multiple platforms) that must be updated for new features or to fix a simple bug.

So for a simple app that needs to be deployed fast and updated frequently, Responsive might be just fine.

So how do you decide which way to go? Here are a few steps to help you...

Category Matters

Based on the image above, if you are Facebook or building a game maybe the choice is obvious to go native. However with almost anything else, you can use the following framework to make your decision. The steps are designed to go down in sequence looking for an answer - if one step in the sequence provides an answer, the rest of the following steps are irrelevant.

Step 1: User Point of View

First, put yourself in the shoes of a user in building your future mobile offering. If you develop from a users perspective, you can create a substantial advantage over competitors and make your product more innovative. Choose the platform that will provide you the most advantage and plan on how to make it happen!

Advantages from a user point of view for native apps come typically because of a more rich user experience and offers full functionality of a smartphone / mobile device - which includes seamless access to features like the camera, the accelerometer, the GPS and so on. However if you don’t envision your app taking advantage of these features a URL to a responsive website might just work fine.

If you don’t have a definitive answer considering your users perspective in Step 1, go to Step 2 below.

Step 2: Decide based on Future User Growth and Monetization for your Product/Service

As a next step, think about your business or product’s future growth and where monetization will come from over the next 18 to 24 months.

Depending on what your service is about, the country/region of your target audience, and the price point/cost of service your future growth considerations will vary.

In case there is significant future growth advantage by picking one over the other, your decision is easier to make! Choose the platform that will provides the most advantages and spend your time planning for execution and your product launch.

Another point to consider is what is your market strategy for your platform and how will you penetrate your target market. How powerful are the devices and networks in use? This may drive you to choose native over responsive or vice versa.

If you don’t have a definitive answer considering future growth and monetization in Step 2, then go to Step 3 below.

Step 3: Decide based on Time to Market, Skills and other resources available (in sequence!)

If you still have not made a decision this implies that there is no significant advantage for your user experience or for future growth and monetization of your product. Whether your mobile strategy is made up of native apps or the responsive web.

In this case (and only in this case), you can user a more practical approach by following in sequence order for your decision making process:

  1. Time to market:

In the case where time to market your service is significantly improved by choosing one platform over the other, choose that platform to launch first with. There are significant benefits in putting your service out in the market in front of real users and that is worth taking advantage of.

  1. Skills in your team:

Next in sequence, in case the extended team dedicated to mobile has significant skill and experience with one platform over the other, then make that your initial platform choice. Don’t consider just software development skills but also consider skills of digital marketing (SEO is very different from ASO; SEM is very different from mobile app downloads and deep linking), PR, Distribution and more.

  1. Other resources available:

Finally, in sequence consider other resources available to you - budget, maybe some beta customers or early adopters that could be critical and more - to make your first platform choice. This is not to say cost should be the last consideration, but if cost were higher in the ranking, most companies would pick responsive web over native mobile apps. In most cases it is much more expensive to design, build, test and maintain native apps in comparison to responsive websites.

If you still don’t have a definitive answer considering the topics discussed in Step 3, then go to Step 4 below.

Step 4: Allow a loved one to pick for you :-)

If you are here in Step 4, there is almost clearly no benefit for choosing one platform over the other one. You might as well flip a coin, or make a call to your mom (or anyone else you care about) and let her pick the platform that will zoom you to future growth and success!

In Summary

If you want to adopt mobile as a core strategy of growth for your company, it comes to getting practical and taking numerous micro decisions enroute to forming a solid strategy that can be executed on. The first article in this series discussed why adoption of mobile is critical today, why the CTO is the person to make most of the critical decisions towards for adopting mobile and also listed the decisions to be taken. This article and subsequent ones discuss each decision in detail and in the end we’ll wrap up the series with a blueprint / checklist of an overall strategy that a competent CTO will feel comfortable to execute on.

I reemphasize that the CTO is in control of your enterprise mobile strategy. It's up to him or her to take a stance and lead this transformation for the future. Go and make it happen!

Sunil Thomas

CEO at CleverTap
Sunil Thomas is the cofounder and CEO of CleverTap. He cofounded the company when he recognized the need for a comprehensive mobile analytics platform that would allow app developers to aggregate user data and the ability to create personalized app experience across various smart devices.

Prior to CleverTap, Sunil has held CTO roles at public companies including Network18 Media based in Mumbai and Infospace Inc. (now Blucora) based in Bellevue, WA. As CTO, Sunil’s expertise has been to apply technology trends for business benefit to ensure optimum delivery of fresh ideas, new products and new customers to market. His specialities include building winning teams, maximizing productivity in technology teams and project execution and delivery.

Earlier in his career, Sunil worked at Tata Consulting Services, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. He also had his first entrepreneur foray as CTO for Zephyr Software which was acquired by Infospace Inc. in 1999.

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