Mobile websites, not apps

Apps, or mobile applications, are all the rage right now. “There’s an app for that“ or “Where’d you get that app?” are now competing taglines that aim to put one device above another based on what software (or apps) is available for that particular device. Well, here’s what bothers me about this as a developer: apps must be developed for at least four major devices—iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and now Windows Mobile (is Palm still big?)—all with different development kits. Which should you choose if you can’t afford to build for all of them?

HTML5: the other choice

What if you didn’t have to choose? What if you could simply develop one application and it worked on all of the major devices? Well, you can—mobile web apps with HTML5. 37Signals recently did it with their Basecamp web application. There’s nothing to install or update. You just point your mobile browser to your Basecamp account and you get a special, mobile-optimized version on your phone that works much like a native app. You can even bookmark it and save the bookmark to your “home” screen. Best of all, it doesn’t care which of the major phones you use!

Good for customers, too

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with someone about an iPhone app for college campuses. It sounded great: maps of the campus, class schedules, places to eat, and much more. However, my first reply was, “What if I don’t have an iPhone?” Mobile web apps are not only more cost-effective (build once and deploy everywhere), but they’re more consumer-friendly because they’re less likely to exclude anyone.

There are instances, I will admit, where an device-specific app may be more appropriate, like games, for example. The mobile web is more powerful than ever, though, so it should certainly be considered when beginning discussions about creating a mobile app. There are two big questions to ask yourself:

Does my budget allow us to build an app for two, three, or four devices?

If we choose to build for one device, can we afford to exclude the customers that use other devices?

If the answer to either of those is “no,” then it’s time to think about building a mobile web app.