Tag Archives | thought
Definitions of words are important. They are the foundation of all communication. Unless we share the same definitions we are likely to run into misunderstandings. In 2011, the word “app” is arguably the most important from a business technology perspective. So, what is an app? There are multiple technical definitions, but I won’t bother you with those.
I will tell you, instead, what the man on the street means when referring to an app. A word definition driven from a street perspective is likely to change over time, but that’s just life. It changes.
The street definition of an app relies on five basic premises. An app is an application that:
- runs on your phone or tablet (such as the iPad)
- is installed from an online app catalogue (such as the App Store or Android Marketplace)
- can be free or if not free, easy to buy directly from the phone
- typically is targeted to the general public, consumers
- is narrowly scoped from a functional perspective
Premise 1 – Mobile
The word “app” was not widely used before Apple’s release of the iPhone and the App Store. It is no coincidence that the word “app” was formally added into the Swedish language in 2010. The context of the word is therefore mobile devices, and primarily mobile phones. We already know that Apple is soon releasing an App Store for their desktop operating system, and Microsoft is rumored to include an app marketplace in Windows 8. This means that the street definition of an app, being related to a mobile device, such as a mobile phone or tablet, will be changed in 2011. Apps will be targeted towards PCs in 2011.
Premise 2 – App catalogue
The app is discovered, purchased, downloaded from an online app catalogue. The app catalogue premise also relates to the nature of the target platform. The target platform, such as an iPhone or Android phone, is open and allows developers to write apps for it.
Premise 3 – Free or purchasable from the device
Most apps today are free. If they are not, the app can easily be purchased from the phone itself. The success of the app is closely related to how easy it is for the user to make app purchases directly from the phone. This implies that the user already has a financial agreement in place with the app catalogue provider.
Premise 4 – Targeted towards the general public, consumers
The number of app downloads will surpass ten billion in 2011. This means that the typical app is targeted to consumers. However, as businesses see the benefits of apps for their employees, we will see more and more internal apps in 2011. That said, there are still multiple distinctions between the app and a traditional mobile solution (for example mobile service orders). See all other premises.
Premise 5 – Narrowly scoped
The app is typically very narrowly scoped. The reason is the context of a mobile phone. A mobile phone is used in a on-the-go situation and the app has to be easy to use and navigate. User experience and user interface is designed to get one or two things done quickly. A sitting-down-at-the-desk situation is not as sensitive. Desktop software is therefore often designed with more features and deeper menu systems.
So, there you have it. Until reality changes and the definition needs to change.
A common discussion that comes up in client meetings is on the topic of “Mobile Web vs App”.
The primary driving force in the discussion is the fear of having to develop the app for multiple platforms, instead of having to develop it just once and have it run in any smartphone’s browser. The question can be put in many ways, but essentially there are two main perspectives:
- “Should we build a mobile version of our web site or build an app?”
- “Should we build the app as a mobile web app, so the user can use it though the phone’s browser, or should we build native apps?”
Here is my advice.
Web Site vs App
If you want your functionality to be used, if you want to provide a rich user experience and the best user interface, then you should build an app. The app phone user prefers an app over a web site. App download and app usage data is very clear. Users rather transact and consume using apps.
However, if your site has a large volume of information that is often referenced, such as articles and posts, or other types of information such as time tables and reference tables, then you will want your web site to render nicely when users visit your site using their phone’s browser.
A typical scenario is when the user reads an email, a tweet or a Facebook post, using the phone, and there is a link to your web site. If the user follows the link, then you will want the page to render nicely. It’s a disappointment if the page renders as if the screen is a big desktop screen, forcing the user to scroll and zoom all over the page to make anything out of it.
This means that in Web Site vs App, you are likely to want to do both:
Position the app for the scenario when the user specifically chooses to interact and transact with your business.
Position the web site for the scenario when the user is taken to your site from other places, or just want to read something that is out of the app’s functional scope. In fact, the app could itself redirect the user to the site in such scenarios.
Also, for the non smartphone users out there. Even though we haven’t seen any relevant amount of web traffic data driven by these the past ten years, it is still not a bad thing to cover this base, too.
Mobile Web App vs Native App
Before addressing this question, I need to clarify one point: the user doesn’t care.
It is entirely possible to use web technologies to design app functionality, package it as an app, distribute the app through app stores/marketplaces, and the user won’t be able to tell if it is native app or web app. Note, however, that the context is the app format (design and distribution) when we discuss. As soon as the discussion implies that it is expected by the user to first start the browser, browse to a specific URL, and then use the web app, then this is not user friendly and the user does care.
So, when comparing two apps, one is native and one is web, it is possible in many types of apps to make it really difficult to tell which is which. This is key, however: don’t sacrifice user interface and user experience on the web altar. An iPhone app should look like an iPhone app, and an Android app should look like Android app. Make sure your web app looks like an app should look on each platform. If you can achieve this, then choose whatever path that suits you best (based on overall strategy, developer productivity etc).
If you want to optimize user experience and user interface, then you should build a native app. If you want to leverage the phone’s capabilities as much as possible, then you should build a native app. If your developers haven’t built an app yet, then you should build a native app. Don’t take any shortcuts if you don’t what you are short cutting. Short cuts are allowed only for those who do.
This is where cross platform vs native comes in. I don’t believe in cross platform frameworks. We’ve struggled with them for more than 20 years and they have three things in common: a least common denominator punishment, over promise and under deliver on “write once, run everywhere”, and they rarely address the user interface differences between platforms. These three issues are the primary reasons why cross platform makers are quick to state: “content is king and information is what matters”, knowing that user experience and user interface is their Achilles heel.
The most interesting development on the cross platform horizon is HTML5. With the industry wide support (Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc), we are bound for a future where some types of apps will be developed in HTML5 and related frameworks, and being able to run on more than one platform. This is, however, not an option that is mature enough yet. We are still waiting for tools and technologies enabling stable development and production.
In short: learn native, know native, build native first. If you choose to go web, package the app as an app, use HTML5 based options and make sure you never sacrifice user experience and user interface.
- Build native apps
- Make your web site look good in the smartphone’s browsers
- Keep you eye on the developments in HTML5 and if you choose to go web, don’t leave the app characteristics
Windows Phone 7 is released today in the US. The marketing message is summed up by the company by the question: “Really?” The press release explains:
The phone is being launched into a crowded marketplace, but Microsoft hopes it stands out with features designed “to get you in, and out, and back to life,” Peters said. He said Windows Phone 7 is an antidote to poor smartphone design that keeps people fumbling with their phones as they walk down the block or sit down to dinner with family.
… and the video below shows some funny moments where the (mis)use of a mobile phone leads to unwanted situations.
While I think the marketing message correctly, and with humor, points out some of the issues with the misuse of mobile phones, it doesn’t really make sense. Here is why:
- Poor product design rarely leads to excessive misuse. Users simply don’t voluntarily use products that are poorly designed. The assumption that competing phones are poorly designed is illogical.
- Great product design, to the contrary, does invite to more use (sometimes leading to excessive use).
- The user interface of the Windows Phone 7 start screen does contain more information than app icons, but it is not logical to assume that the excessive use illustrated by stories and video comes from finding out number of unread email, viewing images of Facebook contacts. Instead, it is more likely the case that the users are reading emails, Facebook posts, watching videos or are or are simply using their favorite apps. A Windows Phone 7 user is likely to want to do the same.
So, if the Windows Phone 7 user adopts the same “questionable behavior” (as the press release puts it), what then is really the message in the marketing campaign? Put your phone away? That’s a strange message from a company that makes it money from us using the phones, and actually reminds me of the marketing by the Swedish state owned liquor monopoly “Systembolaget” which markets alcohol saying: “Don’t drink!”.
Strange marketing message aside, I’m looking forward to getting to use a Windows Phone 7 myself. No marketing message in the world beats hands on experience!
You will quickly realize where the app is heading, if you understand how the web has evolved. The app takes the same route and follows the same patterns, yet many times quicker.
Do you remember when everyone should have a home page but few really knew why? The company’s first home page was at best a digital brochure. Many home pages were just incoherent flashing graphics, scrolling text in bright colors, and the browser often started playing music when the first page was shown…
Many companies’ first apps are in the same way the result of projects driven by the statement: “You must have an app!” even though not everyone really understands. Digital brochures dressed up as apps are pushed out, just as the home pages of the past.
More users discovered the web. The home page became the web site, and the company’s marketing department took over responsibility. The web site became strategic marketing. The company’s customers searched for and found product information, and the web site soon got a central position in marketing campaigns. Apps that communicate brand and product information become increasingly common. Strong brands are early adopters, often with creative and new ideas. Did you see the newspaper ad with a white rectangle in the middle of the ad? Download the app, put your phone on the ad and press “Play”:
Another example is IKEA who has put their entire catalogue into an app and integrated current stock levels in all stores.
The web site became integrated with back office systems for customer and order management. E-commerce was born. Today we see goods being booked, reserved and purchased online, in all business sectors. The development of the web site is coordinated between marketing, sales and business developers in the board of directors.
New apps for e-commerce are launched in an increasing pace. Consumer electronics retailer Dustin just announced that they forecast almost $2 million of sales through their app, in the first year. Pizza Hut recently reported that they’ve sold pizzas worth $7 million through their app. More services and products are marketed with the statement that they can also be used and reached through an app.
The web’s new collaborative features such as blogs, wikis, feeds and communities have integrated the web into processes that now can bridge geographies and department borders. The web and app are holding each other’s’ hands here: the app accelerates and makes the use of these features easier, and enables anywhere access adding its own unique smartness (location awareness and imaging).
In the same way as the web, the app reaches deeper into the company’s business development, and thereby into technical infrastructure. What started as a digital brochure became a sequence of new means of market reach, new sales channels and collaboration opportunities. The app drives both business development and system integration aspects.
So, if you want to know where the app phenomenon is in three years, look around on the web today… and start reap tangible benefits of the insights already today!