Native Apps vs. HTML5: To the Victor Go the Users

In the rush to tap into new digital revenue streams, a tidal wave of app development has ensued, promising new ways for publishers to connect with customers. But instead of jumping into the app fray, a vocal contingent are suggesting you instead optimize your website for mobile.  Let’s have a look at how the contenders stack up in this battle.

In this corner…


Apple announced on March 3 that the app store officially hit 25 billion app downloads. The company also cited a 2010 data pull that indicated iPhone users alone had an average of 108 apps sitting on their phones, and that users used apps for approximately 84 minutes per day. And that’s just Apple.

Why are apps proliferating like gangbusters? At the recent Internet Week New York festival, Jonathan Battelle, chairman of Federated Media and a founder of Wired magazine, spoke to the app vs. mobile web fracas. Although eager to standardize mobile web, Battelle argued that apps contain components which allow them to continue to offer a valuable experience for many users:

They [apps] have eyes and ears and accelerometers. I mean, you have access to stuff that you can see through the camera phone, and you can sense a response, you can know where you are. The Web is just one, big dumb animal compared to the mobile phone when it comes to sensory input and output…

Or, as Matthew Baxter-Reynolds argues in an article for The Guardian,

If you look to connect with your customer […] via a mobile web app (a ‘handshake’) and your competitor offers them a ‘cuddle’ with a better native app experience, you will lose…

Apps have an interactive user interface that can be accessed quickly (and offline). And who doesn’t want a snuggle from their technology every now and then? But what apps have going for them in responsiveness, they lack in other areas: lack of linking, for example, or their exclusivity, which means marketers must devote time and funds to developing for multiple platforms that are themselves constantly being updated. The layers of abstraction introduced by the app experience—namely, the introduction of an intermediary between the publisher and the customer by the platform—keeps the customer (and the customer’s user data) at a distance from the publisher. And of course, there’s the fact that the house takes a cut of the proceeds (30% in Apple’s case). In the world of apps, the user experience is tantalizing, but the house always wins.

And in the other corner…


The strongest advantage for HTML5 is very likely the pain-in-the-butt factor of developing different apps for different devices (not to mention the time and cash required). With a mobile browser, one platform is all you need. Using the fifth-generation hypertext markup language that is its namesake, HTML5 updates the way elements (text, graphics, photos, animation) work in a browser, making the design responsive.

As opposed to app content, a mobile web approach allows archives to be indexed by search engines. Not to mention that fixes to bugs and updates can be made quickly, without the feature updates and upgrades we know and love that are routinely required by apps. Mobile web also allows linking out and general search functionality. And unlike the notorious 30% revenue share and unwillingness on the part of the gatekeepers to release app-related user data with content partners, mobile web allows the publisher to have access to user-generated data. As we well know, in the search for user eyeballs in the discoverability wilderness, data is your roadmap.

Several publishers, such as Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The Financial Times have invested heavily in HTML5 in order to skirt the Apple store and retain those valuable customer relationships and data points with a functionality on par with apps. Plus, using a mobile web approach means that publishers don’t have to go through the sometimes-thorny approval process of the App Store rules.

But mobile web has its own limitations—a slower speed than apps that is dependent on a wireless connection. User experience with apps still tends to be more warm and snuggly, as mentioned above, while the evolution of HTML5 has been somewhat slow and haphazard.

So who’s the winner here?

Decision: TKO

A heavily biased decision awarded to HTML5 by this author for its reduced headache re: multiplicity of formats and its reduced cost.

But in fairness, for now I suppose we’ll call it a draw. Who’s the winner in this epic fisticuffs exchange might just come down to an evidence-based decision of how customers interact with your site. MDG Advertising has put together this helpful infographic (see below) for choosing a development plan that lays out user preferences for either mobile web or app based on user task. In the end, the moral here is to give it some thought and choose the best possible strategy for attracting those eyeballs. At least until a champ emerges.

Should You Build a Mobile App or Mobile Website? [infographic by MDG Advertising]

by MDG Advertising