Is there an app for that?

With such a surge in smartphone and tablet sales, it's no wonder we often get asked if we build apps. When faced with this question, our response is: "do you really need an app?"

Don't get us wrong - there are definitely business cases where an app is required, but with 1.2 million apps in Apple's App Store as of June 2014, your app needs to be pretty special to stand out.

Take a look at your smartphone - how many apps have you downloaded, used once, and never used again? Do you want your business app to become like that for your customers?

If you simply want your smartphone visitors to get an app-like and easy-to-use experience on their phone or tablet, then the answer is to ensure your website is made responsive.

Why can a responsive website be a better solution?

  1. When you develop an app, to reach your market you need to consider not only iOS and Android, but also Windows Phone users - this means that your app needs to be written multiple times, maintained multiple times, and managed in multiple stores. Note 1
  2. How many times have you looked at a $1.99 app and thought "oh, no, too expensive." Ask yourself - if you give away the app for free, will the additional expense of developing, maintaining and selling the app across multiple platforms be that advantageous to your business?
  3. When developing new features for your website users, your responsive website will seamlessly deliver these features to your desktop, tablet and smartphone visitors - you don't need to wait for app approvals or additional development cycles (approvals by the different app stores can take weeks at times).
  4. You can still encourage your visitors to add you to their Home Screen - mobile browsers enable users to add to the Home Screen as an app-like icon for fast, easy and branded access to your site.

To flip it around, there are also situations where a native app could be a better solution:

  1. If you need to use more complicated smartphone features such as GPS, accelerometer, camera and photo library, app integration (if available). There are some libraries available to help responsive websites achieve some of these functions - but if your needs rely on them, an app could be a better way to go.
  2. A responsive website requires that your visitors be connected to the internet to even view anything. An app has potential to run without an internet connection, and if needed sync back later.
  3. Push notifications - if you need to remind your users to do things, a native app can use the operating system's notifications manager to keep on top of this in a manner that the user expects for their device.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of an app - but for the times where we've been asked to develop apps, the requirements of our clients can more easily and cost effectively be managed using a responsive website. As we've noted, native apps for smartphones most definitely still have a place - but take the time to have a chat with an expert who can advise you on the pros and cons of each specific to your requirements.

Notes

1. There are frameworks that act as interpreters and enable you to create your app once and build for different platforms (iOS, Android) from the one source code, however these are not taking full advantage of the device - you'll get better performance, better battery life and the optimal user experience by having your app written natively for each platform - this is where it gets more time consuming to write, maintain and manage. From a developer's perspective, we believe that if you are going to invest in an app, you're smarter to do it right the first time by having it written natively, not using one of these frameworks.

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