iOS or Android or Else? – Part 1

Prologue: To App or Not To App?

The question comes up with every project:

I want to bring my app to mobile phones. How do I decide where to put my app?

Slow down, buddy. Do you really need a native app?

By “native”, we mean that the app is installed by visiting the mobile platform’s respective app marketplace (Apple’s iTunes App Store, Google’s Android Market, Windows Marketplace, etc.). There are all sorts of advantages and disadvantages to the native approach to be talked about in Part 2 (coming soon).

Your app doesn’t have to be specific to iOS or Android or Windows Phone or anything else. It doesn’t even have to be a native app in the first place.

Part 1: In The Browser

You could choose to completely forego a native app in favor of just a good experience inside a phone’s web browser. For these reasons:

  • It’s easier to support multiple phone platforms at once with a single website, rather than several separate native apps.
  • There’s no need to learn a new programming language or find a new development team.
  • Website users are guaranteed to always be using the latest version of the website.

Even if you do go this route, you still have some choices ahead of you.

Do Nothing

There’s no shame in not having a mobile-specific version of your website at all. The WebKit engine that powers the browsers for both Android and iOS can handle almost all of HTML5 and CSS3, just like your new desktop browser can.

With the right decisions made from the start of your desktop website design, your mobile visitors will be able to use your site just as well as anyone else. Be mindful of the user experience in general. Don’t make important links so small that they’re easy to miss with fat fingers. Keep your site clear of Adobe Flash and onMouseOver events that are necessary for navigation.

If a user looked at a whole page without zooming it, would they be able to tell which parts of the page are important to them?

The best part is no extra development cost, provided you thought of these when you started. Run some tests on mobile hardware just to be sure.

Responsive Web Design

If you have the resources, a mobile-optimized site may still be a good idea.

Your typical user could be someone in a hurry and on-the go. They won’t have time to navigate a site via pinch-to-zoom to find the limited set of data they need.

You have probably seen cases where a followed link on your phone takes you to a special m.company.com website instead of the original link. Too many sites still do not get this right. It might get frustrating when trying to share those links on your social networks.

To avoid this problem, you can practice something called responsive web design. This is where the layout of a site changes dynamically based on the device and context it is being viewed in.

Give it a try at the Boston Globe website. This is what you happens if you resize your browser window.

Try it yourself. It’s the same content on the same page at the same URL. What’s happening is that the page is adapting to your screen (in this case, window) size. On a phone, you’ll see a layout like the one on the right.

Granted, this can take some work. But if you keep to the semantic design principles emphasized in HTML5, it will be much easier.

A Mobile Web App

You can make your website even more app-like by supporting a few small touches.

Drawbacks to mobile web sites and applications

Never trust a cellular network further than you can throw it. The mobile web can be dreadfully slow, or non-existent. The loss of connectivity will cripple any web app.

Even if you do have a speedy connection, the normal processing overhead when using a browser makes user interactions slower than they could be in a native app. When it comes to the user experience, speed counts.

Now, what about those native apps?…

Look for the conclusion in the coming weeks.

Michał Sterzycki

Michał has spent over 10 years ensuring end-users and administrators alike have the best experience possible, in both consumer- and enterprise-level applications. He anticipates what they want, before they want it.

If you catch him in the hallway, he will likely wax prophetic on the nature of software and hardware design. He watches the software and mobile industries, closely monitoring trends. He also dabbles in film criticism, gaming, history, and religious study.

Michał graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor's Degree in both Information Technology and Psychology, with a concentration in Software Usability. Figures.

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