Let’s use this understanding of mobile apps being locally-installed and device specific and mobile web being centrally-hosted and device agnostic to further compare and contrast each.
Supporting multiple devices is an obvious area of contrast. With mobile apps, multiple code lines need to be developed and maintained for a solution that spans different mobile operating systems. Multi-skilled teams or multi-teams with their own areas of specialization are needed for both the initial development and on-going enhancement and maintenance. A costly operation the more mobile operating systems supported. With mobile web, that cost is significantly reduced. One code line is developed and maintained irrespective of the mobile devices out there keeping in mind the effort required in ensuring cross-browser compatibility. No different to developing web solutions for desktop based browsers. Internet Explorer behaves differently to Safari and to Chrome. Catering for those subtle differences is essential to avoid end user dissatisfaction.
Solution updates are another area of contrast. With mobile web, structural updates can be applied immediately, across the entire spectrum of supported devices at once and with no intervention by the mobile device owner. The next time a website or web application is accessed, any new features are immediately available. Structural updates to mobile apps, however, need to first be approved by the respective app storefront and then ‘promoted’ for downloading. How often people update their apps in general is anyone’s guess. It’s left entirely to personal, individual whim. A process that is not as ‘immediate’ as mobile web. A provider whose existence hinges on its consumers having the most recent capability can find itself in dire straits with such latencies.
The same can be said for refreshing content. Depending on how a mobile app is developed, refreshing content may also require a physical update to the App. Or, it may not. It’s possible the mobile app is designed such that it dynamically reaches out to the internet to refresh content presented within the app. With mobile web, this isn’t even a consideration. Content refreshes are instantaneous across the spectrum of supported devices.
If monetization is a consideration, then mobile apps have a leg up although this is starting to change with advances in mobile web technologies and in particular HTML, which will be discussed further later on. So far, consumers have shown they are apt to pay for a mobile app more than they are for access to a mobile web page. This has to do more with mindset and conditioning than anything else. Right from the outset, mobile apps have only been available from ‘stores’. And as with any store, there’s an expectation that in all likelihood one is going to have to pay for goods and services including, possibly, content. People were conditioned from the beginning to be prepared to pay. The same cannot be said about the internet or mobile web. The internet has its roots in being a free medium, barring the cost of admission of course, i.e. the cost to get access to the internet itself. Once there however, one could go wherever one wanted, free of charge. Although people have grown to accept, even embrace, paying for goods online, they have struggled to pay for services, particularly content. Regardless of goods or services, the challenge many online merchants have faced is garnering repeat business. Ensuring people ‘find’ their way back to the store. Search engine optimization, social media, getting customers to ‘bookmark’ are critical to sustaining repeat business. Anything that easily points a customer [back] to the store. With apps, that paradigm is slightly different. There’s generally only one way to get to get back to the provider…open the app. And it’s easy! There’s no need to first open the internet browser and then search or browse or retrieve a bookmark. Simply open the dedicated app. And making it easy for the consumer to do transact business has a direct impact on the bottom line.
When looking at content providers specifically, certainly they have placed a heavy emphasis on mobile apps hoping that In-App subscription services will be the answer to their woeful online revenue generating experience. The form-factor of mobile devices, particularly tablets, has the potential to change that. People are more comfortable reading a book, magazine, newspaper, what have you that ‘looks and feels’ like its real-world equivalent than they are reading ‘electronic content’. And they’re willing to pay for it. Mobile apps provide that level of comfort and familiarity. Mobile web typically does not.
One thing content providers are fully cognizant of, however, is that their value diminishes to zero if content can’t be accessed. This has been one of the primary deterrents for many to commit wholeheartedly to mobile web. Without a wireless connection, its as if the content never existed. HTML5 is meant to change that, allowing for offline access to web content. Although HTML5 is being trialled by a number of organizations, it is still years away from being fully ready for wide-spread industry use according to the W3C HTML Working Group developing the standard. They plan to announce ‘Last Call’ for specification feedback in May 2011 and then will move to final testing of the standard in hopes of making it an official Recommended standard sometime in 2014. In the meantime, mobile web users will continue to succumb to ‘Network Unavailable’ from time to time. Mobile apps don’t suffer this fate, only if purposefully designed so, e.g. the app integrates with and is dependent upon web-based systems. Once installed locally on a device, mobile apps are inherently always ‘on’ and accessible. Many see this as a huge advantage, particularly in commercial scenarios where people expect to access paid content and information wherever they may be.
Another key area of contrast is the the ability to easily leverage the unique hardware capabilities of mobile devices such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, camera, GPS, microphone, etc. Mobile apps can do this seamlessly, which can bring great benefit to the overall experience. It is difficult, if not impossible, to access these device-level features through mobile web. This is why many games and action-oriented type Apps have gone the mobile app route where their livelihood depends upon incorporating the accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS into its function. Again, HTML5 is expected to address this deficiency in mobile web by providing the seamless ability to access such device-level features and capability.
If response time is critical to an apps function, then mobile apps generally have the leg up. Processing information locally will more often than not be quicker than doing so over the wireless network. One of the biggest complaints of mobile web when comparing to mobile apps is response time. According to a study by Equation Research, users expect mobile Web sites to download on mobile devices as quickly, or even more quickly than they do on desktop PC’s. That’s simply not possible with current cellular, 3G and 4G, and mobile WIFI speeds. Many providers will direct consumers to their mobile app equivalent if they ‘sense’ that the device accessing its offering through mobile web is not capable of speeds consistent with expected response times.
And then there is the question of which is more engaging? Mobile apps rely upon buttons, slide switches and rolodex-type controls. Software features that mimic real-world controls. Mobile web on the other hand are simply websites optimized, hopefully, for mobile devices. Mobile web therefore is often characterized by hyperlinks, checkboxes and pop-ups. Not the most engaging of controls on a mobile device. Once again, HTML5 is changing that where mobile app type controls are now made possible within mobile web. Jakob Neilsen, called the “guru of Web page usability” by the New York Times, has proven that mobile apps are more engaging than mobile web in various mobile web studies proclaiming “it’s more painful to use the Web on mobile phones than on desktop computers”. He went on to say his “main conclusion from watching iPhone app users is that they suffered much less misery than users in our mobile website tests. In fact, testing people using iPhone apps produced happier outcomes than testing people attempting to use websites on the same phone”.
With the market not leaning one way or the other, how does one determine the best path for its own particular needs? Let’s dig deeper into each area to better equip companies and people to make their own decisions on the most appropriate ‘mobilization’ path for them. To compare and contrast mobile apps and mobile web appropriately, let’s begin by establishing a common understanding of each. Mobile apps are self-contained runtime applications that are downloaded and installed locally on a mobile device. Mobile apps make use of controls and features native to the hardware and operating system and therefore are very device or operating system specific. A mobile app written for one mobile operating system will not run on that of another. Mobile apps for Apple iOS devices, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, are written in Objective-C, a derivative of the C-programming language. Apps for Android and BlackBerry devices are written in Java. Apps for Windows Phone devices are developed using Microsofts .Net framework and more specifically Silverlight or XNA. Because both Blackberry and Android Apps are written in Java, albeit unique implementations of the Java Development Environment (JDE), it is ‘easier’ to develop Apps that are compatible across these two platforms. As evidenced by the RIMs recent announcement that its Playbook will be able to run Android Apps in the near future.
Mobile web on the other hand involves no downloading and no installing. Instead, one simply ‘goes to’ the desired website using an internet browser on the mobile device such as such as Safari, the BlackBerry Browser, Dolphin, Firefox, or Opera. Preferably, website and web application developers have optimized their solutions for mobile devices such that they display and respond appropriately on the smaller screen real-estates and slower bandwidths. With mobile web, all the benefits of developing traditional web solutions apply, e.g. the ubiquity of web browsers, no need to distribute and locally install executable code on end devices, cross-platform compatibility, etc. Sometimes, mobile websites and web applications are accessed through a downloadable and locally-installed App that incorporates mobile web functionality within its workflow. This category of mobile web can sometimes be confused with mobile app since it is seen as a downloadable and locally-installed App. It is, in fact, a hybrid of mobile app and mobile web.
In business, the workplace has moved back and forth between centralized and distributed computing models as it strives to balance controlling costs with responding quickly to change with providing a quality experience and outcome. We’ve seen business applications reside in whole on centralized infrastructure, in whole on end client devices and across both. No one model has reigned supreme nor become extinct. Despite the proliferation of web-based applications, hosted in the cloud or not, the mainframe is still around as is traditional client-server. Locally installed applications are just as prevalent today as are web-based applications. Frank Gillet of Forrester recently stated that despite a significant increase in the use of web applications by companies (84% increase to be exact), locally installed applications were not being abandoned, citing “55% of firms are increasing or staying the same on their use of [locally] installed applications”. Many if not most office productivity and utility applications are still locally-installed. More and more company operational systems tend to be web-based nowadays, whether those are pre-developed, packaged systems or custom developed systems. No clear winner in the centrally-hosted vs locally-installed debate in the desktop world and therefore no reason to believe there will be a clear winner in the similar debate underway in the mobile world.
Industry research analysts, consumers, software developers and content providers seem to agree with this. Thomas Husson of Forrester says the debate is irrelevant, proclaiming it’s a classic example of technology driving product development and marketing strategies instead of the other way around. He goes on to say “product strategists often forget to ask themselves the right questions: which product and services, for which audiences, at what cost, and when?” Mobile app, mobile web or both may be appropriate. The mobile analytics firm, Flurry, recently reported that consumer time spent using mobile apps nearly equals that spent using mobile web at an average of 81 minutes per day per consumer for mobile apps versus 74 minutes for web web. Clearly, it’s not an “either/or” scenario when it comes to consumer behaviour. Other studies have shown that heavy mobile app users are also heavy mobile web users. The more frequently consumers access the Internet via mobile devices, the more likely they are to download apps on a monthly basis.
Software developers are also hedging their bets, planting a foot in each camp. Companies like Evernote and DropBox have both app and mobile web versions of their popular cloud computing solutions. In fact, the success of their mobile Apps has caused each to re-think their desktop offerings. Both have released locally-installed desktop Apps that ‘reach out’ to their cloud computing offerings. Apple has done similarly, opening the App Store for Mac on the heels of its App Store success in the mobile world. Microsoft has recently announced its own App Store for Windows coinciding with the Windows 8 launch.
Content providers including major broadcasters such as CBC, TSN, BBC, ABC, ESPN and SportsNet are not picking a side either. They are continuing to offering their content on both mobile apps and mobile web. The same can be said for publishers such as The Globe and Mail, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Financial Times. All have committed to supporting mobiles apps and mobile web, not choosing to go with one model over the other.
Mobile apps versus mobile web. Why is there a debate, how long has it been going and who’s winning? To understand the difference between mobile apps and mobile web is to better understand the answer to these questions. First, the history. When the debate began and why? From the word “mobile”, it doesn’t take much to conclude the debate is relatively new. Some would say since Apple came on the scene with its iPhone in 2007 and then the App Store in 2008. Although personal digital assistants (PDAs) and early smartphones have provided on-the-go internet access since the new millennial, the experience was not an overly pleasant one due to limitations in network bandwidth, screen display technology and browser navigation controls. Furthermore, these early mobile devices provided little to no apps. Apps were ‘features’ of the device. What the device came with out-of-the-box. Both being a non-factor during this early period, mobile apps and mobile web drew little comparison and therefore little debate. Apple changed that in the summers of 2007 and 2008.
On June 29, 2007, Apple unleashed the iPhone onto the world. The iPhone made ‘using’ the internet as distinct from ‘accessing’ it a reality on a mobile device. Although it wasn’t the first smartphone to provide internet browsing, its unique rendering of native websites, i.e. non-mobile optimized, combined with its revolutionary multi-touchscreen technology provided a very enjoyable browsing experience that led to a dramatic increase in mobile internet usage. Mobile web was off and running.
Apple followed that up one year later with another home run in its App Store, introduced as part of an iTunes update that coincided with the launch of the iPhone 3G. The App Store brought about an insatiable demand for apps. What started out as one store with 500 apps serving solely the US market has since ballooned to more than 90 stores worldwide with more than 400,000 apps. The App Store and ubiquitous catchphrase “there’s an App for that” have become hallmarks, trademarks to be precise, of the Apple brand. The word “app” was awarded the 2010 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. People couldn’t, still can’t, get enough apps. Apps are novel, cool, functional, relevant and connected. Mobile Apps provide seamless integration with web resources bringing the internet to people on the go in a form that is functional and fast.
The iPhone and App Store kicked off a craze that other mobile device manufacturers and operating system developers could not ignore. It wasn’t long before others were developing multi-touchscreen smartphones and launching their own application storefronts to capitalize upon the mobile web and mobile app craze that was underway. There are now over fifty (50) application storefronts available from various device manufacturers, operating system developers, wireless operators and independent companies. The mobile app store market analytics firm Distimo provides excellent insight into these various stores. The notable ones include Research in Motion’s (RIM) AppWorld, Google’s Market for Android devices and Microsoft’s Marketplace for its Windows Phone.
As apps and app storefronts continue to proliferate, developers and consumers are better understanding the costs involved in developing and maintaining apps for different mobile platforms. And it’s not insignificant! But it can also mean competitive suicide not to develop for any one device. Developers and consumers have therefore started looking more to mobile web as a solution to these rising costs. Serving up content and providing app functionality to mobile devices through the web significantly reduces development costs and consumer prices. Sound familiar? It’s the client-server vs web-application story revisited.
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series where we start to explore the mobile web side of the equation.
A heads up to OS X and iOS developers: if you were planning to upgrade to OS X 10.7 right away, or already have, be sure to also to download the new version of Xcode. As many people know, Xcode 4.1 is needed to develop applications for OS X 10.7 (Lion). However, what was not so obvious (to me at least) is that Xcode 4.0.x will not work at all on Lion – it won’t even open. So even if you’re only developing iOS apps, you’ll still need to update Xcode.
Good news is that Xcode is now a free download through the App Store. Bad news is that it’s a sizeable download (just under 3 GB) and it took a disproportionally long time to download. In my case, I ended up leaving it to download overnight, and when I got up this morning, the download had failed to complete. Fortunately, I was able to resume the download, and then it finished up quickly and installed.
So, if (when) you upgrade to Lion, you’ll probably want to hop on over to the App Store and download the new version of Xcode first. Or make that the very next thing you do after installing OS X 10.7 and make sure you have some development time to spare while you download the update.
So, how are iOS devices being used in the workplace today? Most organizations are using them “out of the box”, leveraging features and Apps that come with the device. They are also relying heavily upon the wealth of Apps publicly available “off the shelf” in the App Store. Relatively speaking, a very small number of organizations have progressed to custom developing solutions to fit their unique needs. Education is one industry going with what’s available out-of-the-box and off-the-shelf. The most notable being Long Island University who have already deployed more than 6,000 iPads to students and faculty. Plans are afoot to increase this to 12,000 by next year. Research via the internet, note taking, reading e-books, drawing and education-based gaming are common in K-12 and Higher Education environments. There’s no shortage of common use Apps available out-of-the-box and off-the-shelf to satisfy this purpose, offsetting the need to custom develop Apps for the time being. Some educational institutions, however, are starting to move in this direction. The University of Saskatchewan and Red Deer College in Canada, Wiltshire College in the United Kingdom and Western Oregon University in the United States have all developed custom iPhone Apps for their parent, teacher and student body. These Apps provide access to school resources such as staff directories, campus maps and news, course schedules and curriculum, etc.
Other early adopters of iOS devices are sales teams from all walks. The iPad, specifically, is proving to be a game changer for sales. Its form and function is perfectly suited for a sales force on the go who may not always have the luxury of meeting customers in a boardroom setting where a polished presentation can be provided through the use of high-end audio-visual equipment. iOS devices, and the iPad in particular, bring this level of polish to any setting, weather the boardroom or the local coffee shop. It’s completely scalable and, of course, mobile. General Electric has rolled out nearly 2,000 iPads to its sales force and has custom-developed Apps that allow employees to approve purchase orders on-the-spot. And Mercedez-Benz Financial, after piloting iPads on the showroom floor at 40 of its dealerships, is now purported to be rolling out iPads to all 350 of its dealerships to enable sales teams to provide on-the-spot financing for customers. Customers can then download the Mercedez-Benz Financial iPhone App to manage their accounts and make payments. Customers have made more than $5 million in car payments through the App already. SAP has successfully rolled out more than 2,000 iPads to sales, marketing and pre-sales teams and is now planning to equip all 17,000 of its employees with iPads. Wells Fargo took more than 2 years studying the iPhone before allowing its staff to use the device for work functions but took less than 2 weeks to decide on the iPad or similar use. They see iOS devices as a critical component of their customer account management strategy moving forward.
Service industries, such as food, hospitality and shipping, keen to differentiate themselves in over-saturated marketplaces have been quick to adopt iOS devices. Enterprising restaurants, such as Global Mundos Tapas in Australia, Chicago Cut Steakhouse in, yes, Chicago and South Gate in New York City’s 5-star Jumeirah Essex House hotel are all incorporating iPads into their operations, providing patrons digital menus and wine lists in lieu of traditional print. A novel way to increase customer patronage. Some have even gone so far as to allow ordering from the iDevice. Au Bon Pain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, the newly launched Stacked specialty burger chain and a myriad of pizza ‘shops’, the most notable being Pizza Hut and Dominos, being just a few. Pizza Hut claimed to have processed more than $1 million in orders through their iPhone App within 3-months of launching it and Dominos Australia claimed $2 million in orders within that same time frame. Hotel chains are another service industry snapping up iOS devices for internal operations. Holiday Inn has a pilot running where their downloadable iPhone App serves, amongst other things, as a door key. Hyatt has equipped its concierge desks with iPads, providing a novel and convenient way to provide guests directions, restaurant recommendations, updates on local events, etc. At Hyatt-owned boutique Andaz hotels, guests are greeted by staff with iPads equipped to swipe credit-cards, capture signatures and encode room keys on-the-spot, allowing guests to go directly to their rooms. The 5-Star Plaza Hotel in New York City has just equipped all 650 rooms and suites with iPads. A custom-developed Plaza Hotel iPad App allows guests to order room service, make restaurant reservations, request wake up calls, check airline schedules, even print boarding passes and most ‘cool of all’ control room lighting, heating and air conditioning. And finally, shipping service providers like Fed Ex, UPS and Canada Post all have iPhone Apps available to the general public for free download to track shipments, and in some cases even place a shipment. A classic example of extending existing capability already available on a company website to a mobile device and capturing new marketshare, the consumer on the go.
Then there is healthcare. An industry that has seen explosive uptake of iOS devices. Particularly in physician owned and operated clinics where there’s maximum freedom in choosing technologies. And why are a large number of health professionals choosing iOS devices over other devices? Form-factor. The no-instructions-needed, intuitive-to-use design that serves up meaningful health information anywhere, anytime. Physician-purchased iOS devices typically remain in physicians hands as they manage their time between clinic and hospital. And physician power and influence in hospitals are considerable particularly in comparison to other industries. Hospital administrators are being forced to take a closer look at internal mobile device policies. iOS devices “are coming in” whether they like it or not. The Ottawa Hospital is one hospital not waiting for this phenomenon to hit them, choosing to proactively get ahead of the curve. After an initial pilot, The Ottawa Hospital is now deploying thousands of iPads, iPhones and iPod touch devices to all its physicians and nurses. It’s not only the largest hospital iPad deployment globally but is in the top 10 iPad deployments of any industry. After considering a number of off-the-shelf electronic medical record (EMR) solutions, The Ottawa Hospital decided to custom-build an EMR iPad App. Another Canadian hospital quick to adopt iOS devices is Mt Sinai Hospital in Toronto who have also custom-developed an App called VitalHub that provides hospital staff access to clinical data, reference material and patient information stored in more than 65 systems throughout the hospital. Also well entrenched in the iOS device camp is RehabCare that operates 35 acute care hospitals and rehab facilities throughout the US. It has an on-going program developing mission-critical iOS apps for some 8,000 iPod touches, 700 iPhones and 120 iPads in the hands of administrative staff and caregivers.
As can be seen, no shortage of companies and organizations starting to emerge from internal ‘pilots’ to full-out, wide-scale deployments with customized, rich mobile Apps to further enhance and enable their business.
Going hand-in-hand with security is asset management or mobile device management (MDM). MDM is instrumental to security: delivering and updating security profiles, remotely wiping and/or locking devices, clearing passcodes, etc. MDM goes much beyond security however. MDM is critical to the efficient and effective everyday administration of iOS devices, ensuring they are complying with general company policies and that the latest company Apps are available. As with security, MDM involves much more than the devices themselves. MDM policies and practices are equally important, if not more. Policies covering everything from the company systems and accounts that iOS devices will be allowed to connect with (VPN, WIFI, LDAP, CalDAV, IMAP/POP email, etc) to any restrictions once connected, e.g. restricted use of Camera, Screen capture, In-App purchasing, YouTube, Safari, etc. The type and number of policies established combined with the number of devices managed determines the practices needed to administer and assure those policies. The practices could range from being very manual in nature to being fully automated. A small number of devices to be managed with minimal to moderate policies to be enforced might warrant a largely manual device management process.
Whether mostly manual or fully automated, two management tools from Apple help with the effort. These are the iPhone Configuration Utility and the online iOS Provisioning Portal, which is available to registered Apple developers. These tools provide the ability to establish and install on iOS devices configuration profiles, provisioning profiles and in-house developed or company sanctioned Apps. Configuration profiles are created using the iPhone Configuration Utility. A configuration profile can consist of any combination of settings including security policies and restrictions, VPN configuration information, WIFI settings, e-mail and calendar accounts and authentication credentials. Once created, a configuration profile can be installed on an iDevice in one of four ways. By USB cable-connecting that iDevice to the computer running the iPhone Configuration Utility software and then installing the configuration profile in very much the same manner as performing a ‘sync’ using iTunes. Or, the configuration profile can be e-mailed to the iDevice as an attachment and then installed by tapping on the attachment. Alternatively, the configuration profile can be placed on a website with the link to the website sent via e-mail or SMS allowing the profile to be downloaded and installed through Safari. Finally, the configuration profile can be installed over-the-air through the use of an MDM server, either one developed in-house or from a third-party. There are no shortages of third-party MDM solutions available, the most notable being JAMF, MobileIron, Sybase Afaria, Zenprise and Air Watch. Many, if not all, of these MDM solutions are capable of managing multiple device types, including BlackBerry and Android, and their capabilities go much beyond the routine tasks of creating and distributing configuration and provisioning profiles and Apps. They provide other management functions such as remote-wiping, remote locking, automated inventory, usage tracking and audit trails. Their capabilities are top-notch and truly are essential for large organizations with hundreds, if not thousands, of mobile devices to manage. For smaller organizations , the more ‘manual’ approaches to distributing configuration profiles are suitable.
A provisioning profile allows for in-house developed Apps or company sanctioned Apps to be installed on designated iOS devices, be that through or outside the App Store. Provisioning profiles are created using the online iOS Provisioning Portal available to registered Apple developers. The provisioning profile can be created by ‘direct-entry’ or by using the Development Provisioning Assistant, which guides the creation process. Once created, the provisioning profile can be associated to any number of in-house developed or company sanctioned Apps. The provisioning profile and App(s) can then be installed using any of the mechanisms described above for installing a configuration profile. A number of niche, over-the-air provisioning profile and App-only installation solutions are sprouting up. Test Flight is one example. For those not in need of over-the-air provisioning, a small number of third-party solutions are available for bulk, multi-device syncing and charging. These are great for classroom settings and service-based organizations such as clinics or restaurants that might loan iOS devices. The two most notable solutions in this category are from Bretford and Parat Solutions.