Mobile Applications Versus Mobile Web Sites In Education

The future of mobile development is a strong one. The question these days is…”Is it better to build a mobile website or a mobile app”? Will new and developing browser technologies like HTML5 make the mobile Web preferable to apps? In my opinion, there is no debate at all. The mobile Web is not going to die and app stores are not going anywhere.

As mobile usage increases worldwide, both sides of the equation will grow with it and become valuable aspects of product road maps. There is an expression that goes something like “a high tide raises all ships”.

Apps often fulfill a “quick action, I need something” role for students while browsers fulfill a “I need to look something up and read” role. It makes sense. When you consume content via a smartphone or a tablet, you are probably in an app that takes advantage of the deeper integrations of the device like accelerometers, ingrained video capabilities, cameras and location-based services. Themobile Web is used more often for research and looking things up on the fly while out and about. The distinction between the two are blurring.

Each has advantages and in my opinion apps have one clear advantage. In general, a well-made app can provide a far better user experience than even the best mobile websites are capable of right now. But that being said, you need to remember that making just a native app is usually harder than making an equivalent cross-platform web app. You often have to build each app for each platform to reach a wider audience. In North America, the most important smartphone platforms right now are iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. How many mobile users are on each? Here are the ratios in the U.S., as a percentage of all mobile phone users, for the last quarter of 2010:

iPhone: 6.75%
Android: 7.75%
BlackBerry: 8.53%
TOTAL: 23.0%

In other words, if you decide to only make an iPhone app, fewer than 7% of all mobile phone users will be able to use it. If the app’s primary purpose is marketing, you’ll need to decide whether this reach is big enough to be worth it.

As far as the advantage of Web apps over native mobile apps, it is cross-platform compatibility. They run in the standards-compliant browsers that are available on Android, Apple, BlackBerry, and Windows mobile devices, so (in theory at least) they have to be built only once. The disadvantages, as I stated earlier, are that they lack access to such features of a device, they can’t use some of user-interface elements that are native to each platform, and they can’t be downloaded from Apple’s App Store or the Android Market.

There are clear arguments for both applications and mobile sites. While some companies believe that mobile development priorities should be focused on either a mobile site or an application, the reality is that students are using both channels, so an integrated approach is the optimal solution…a hybrid solution.

You also need to consider time, budget and resources to develop each solution.

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