For the last couple of years there has been a heated debate between supporters of native apps and those who are strongly in favor of the mobile web. Native app proponents argue that the mobile web will never provide the level of device-integration and performance that a native app is capable of. Mobile web proponents point out that modern web technologies are more than capable of doing everything the average site — and even complex sites like eCommerce stores — could possibly need. Both sides are cogent and have the support of smart and experienced people, which puts eCommerce retailers in a bind — they must have a mobile-friendly website, but should they also pay for the development of a native app?
It’s a complex problem and it’s one that can’t be solved in general — every eCommerce retailer has to ask themselves whether — given their specific market and customers — building a mobile app is an efficient use of resources.
The Advantages Of Native Apps
There are several advantages to building a native app.
- Better Performance — native applications have access to graphical capabilities that the mobile web does not. It’s possible to build a website with almost-native performance, especially with the right web hosting and eCommerce platform, but with native apps better performance “comes for free”.
- Better access to native features — To take a simple example, it’s far easier to manage push notifications with a native application than over the web.
- Brand visibility — Native apps are installed on user devices, which means merchants have a constant and visible presence on a device that is used probably dozens of times a day.
Advantages of the mobile web
The mobile web may lack some of the device access and slickness of a native application, but it does have a lot going for it.
- Responsive design — Five years ago, I’d have advised every eCommerce merchant who wanted a significant presence on mobile to invest in a native application. Today, I’m more likely to lean the other way. Responsive design and HTML5 has made the mobile web a viable solution for building complex, interactive, and performant web pages that support devices of all size.
- You need a mobile site anyway — For the vast majority of retailers, it’s not a choice of mobile web or native. It’s a choice of whether to develop a native application in addition to a mobile website. If a mobile website does the job, and a native app is expensive to develop, then why not invest in optimizing the web experience?
- Do your customers want an app? — Amazon has an app. But even Amazon has trouble getting people to actually install it — many simply prefer the web and don’t want a collection of eCommerce apps on their home screen. For eCommerce retailers with a particularly strong brand and very committed customers, it might be possible to influence sufficient of them to install a native application, but the vast majority of eCommerce shoppers find products via the web and are happy to shop on the web.
The Bottom Line
As Benedict Evans points out, there’s a high barrier to get over if an eCommerce merchant is to convince shoppers to install their app. They need an unusually strong brand and relationship with customers:
“If you don’t have that relationship, then all the clever things you can imagine you could do with Apple or Google’s new APIs are irrelevant and your strategy should focus on the web (and social)”
I’m not arguing that your brand isn’t capable of building that sort of relationship, just that most customers are already using the mobile web for shopping, that they will find your store through search or social, and that the mobile web is more than capable of supporting all but the most complex retail stores.
A native app may be a great prestige project for your eCommerce store, but the mobile web and responsive eCommerce platforms like Magento offer an experience that is more than adequate. So why spend big on a native mobile app that will have a minimal benefit to sales?Posted in: eCommerce