Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Evening With The Mobile Web vs Mobile App Debate

Image representing Flirtomatic  as depicted in...Image via CrunchBase

One of big question these days for people with a great mobile idea is how to distribute your content or service: a purpose-made application? A nicely scaling website? A website built to look like an application on the right phones? This is actually an expensive question to get wrong now so many want to deliver content to the pockets of so many. Competition is fierce, time-to-market is an issue, visibility is an issue, and meanwhile Apple may simply not let you play.

Arguments all around. It is easier to discover apps than mobile services, as application stores catalog and rate applications while the mobile web does not. It is easier to RE-discover apps that to rediscover mobile websites, because apps get stored on home screens and bookmarking is still apain. However, with 50.000 apps in one store and home screens filling up, both these advantages are about to be lost for apps, so what gets left? Mobile web pages allow creators to not have to go through approval processes, be able to push out innovative updates instantly as fast as they can upload a website, and to hit many different phones at a fraction of the investment costs to make apps for every phone.

There are many more reasons and trade-offs to think about, like how well can a web-app integrate with the phone, and does it need to, and what devices to target for development. By now I usually find this debate very boring because the answer really depends on a long list of questions only the service-creator can answer, with the added complication of what Venture Capital Funds will or will not invest in, what they consider hot this quarter. The only good debates about it these days are the ones that clarify the current questions, and add the right questions to ask, not the ones that try to force an answer or ideology. Having real experience on both fronts help.

Which is why I so enjoyed spending time last Monday evening at the Mobile Design UK event. One of the speakers was Jason Fields who described how his blog,, a curated collection of beautiful and great iPhone apps, came to be, took off, and now holds lessons of what makes a great app -- but also informs just how many of these efforts are made by one or two people and no more. The other was Fjord Design and Flirtomatic's Mark Curtis, who has real experience pushing out a mobile service that makes great revenue by offering virtual gifting, profile adornment, and paid search results in a flirting context. Flirtomatic tried to be a JAVA app, and failed because of phone capabilities, hit it big as a mobile website, tried to make an iPhone app, and found that they still hit their business goals better as a pure mobile web play.

The reality is that making an iPhone or Android application means your service will end up working on far fewer devices than a single well-coded gracefully-failing mobile web site will. Yet many developers flock to making iPhone apps even if their service could just as well have been done as a site. Why? Mark mentioned how he found one of the big reasons to go with an application, the ease of getting paid, was not an issue for him: Flirtomatic was doing just fine getting proper mobile billing to work for them, so could this criterium be discarded? Yet, yet... earlier Jason had mentioned all these '1 or 2 people in the home office' efforts at making apps. So I got to ask Mark, what about them? How many people did Flirtomatic need to get carrier billing to work, and is it reproducible by me and my best friend working in our spare time?

The answer was yes in Europe, because there are wholesalers -- who will take a cut -- to manage billing for your premium service through all the mobile carriers, Europe-wide. But outside, like the US...? No, you have to negotiate with every carrier, one by one, and that isn't just the big 4, but also carriers like Cricket and Alltell. This requires resources.

And I guess that is really the overriding reason why so many hopefuls have joined the app goldrush. If all there was was the mobile web, motivated teams would have made that work. But most of all, we want a shot at that pot of gold, as in getting paid, and Apple has made that work near-flawlessly for consumers and developers. The mobile web, well, nobody was really in charge, and so you have to deal with a shaky system of premium SMSes, wholesalers to depend on, and headaches where they are not... and the small teams simply can't.

I guess my guiding questions for app vs web in mobile these days is: is your service worth paying for, and if so, just how small a team are you?