It's a debate that's raged since the first smartphones hit the market: should you develop native mobile applications, or web sites that are optimized for mobile devices? The answer seems as elusive as ever. The fact that we're still having the debate is itself something of an answer though; both are viable solutions.
The debate is so often framed in either-or terms, however there's no reason you can't do both. If you expect that you have customers who will download a mobile app, then you also have customers who will find your web site on a mobile browser. A mobile-optimized web site is increasingly important for most businesses, and should be a starting point for anyone asking the question to begin with.
But the real question, from a technology perspective, is how to expose more sophisticated functionality to your mobile customers. Native apps will usually be more fluid, be able to access all of the features of the device, will conform to the experience the user expects for their specific device, and will usually perform better than web sites. They will also usually cost more to develop and will be limited to just those devices on the selected platform (iOS, Android, etc.)
A web-based application, on the other hand, will run on any smartphone (more or less). But, you won't get access to all of the hardware features of the device, and the interface will not look like the native apps that it will run alongside. Another downfall that's often overlooked is that it is harder for potential users to discover web applications, as compared to browsing a centralized app store. On the flip side, there are a lot more developers out there who can work with web technologies than with the native development environments, and they are often cheaper.
This is just touching the surface, and there are no hard and fast rules. It might seem, for instance, that gaming is best done as a native app - and this is undoubtedly true for games that rely on high-framerate 3D graphics. But games that are suitable for Flash or HTML5 may work very well as a mobile web app. So spend some time up front, and ask some questions.
Every project is unique, so don't let anyone tell you there is only one answer. Your project will drive the answer that's right for you.
If you are interested in developing an app, or extending an app you already have to multiple platforms to reach a wider range of users, contact KeyLimeTie at 630.598.9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
KeyLimeTie is a full-service design, development & digital strategy agency, helping clients communicate more effectively and intimately with their customers through interactive marketing channels.
Specializing in web and mobile application development across a variety of platforms, KeyLimeTie provides content management, ecommerce, and custom application solutions, while also assisting customers with social media campaign and reputation management.