Rarely a mobile conference goes by without this debate popping up: Should you build a mobile website or an application? I don’t think it really matters; in fact, I’d say it is irrelevant. This is just one of many topics where technology leads marketing by the nose— as is often the case in the mobile industry! Product strategists often forget to ask themselves the right questions: which product and services, for which audiences, at what cost, and when?

Consumer product strategists designing product experiences for mobile phones and smartphones must decide on their development priorities across the mobile Web and apps. While some believe this is a fundamental “either/or” choice, current consumer behavior suggests that consumers are using both. More than half of European (and 60% of US) consumers who download apps at least monthly also access the Internet via their mobile phones at least daily. In short, heavy app users are also heavy mobile Web users. The more frequently consumers access the Internet via their mobile phones, the more likely they are to download apps at least monthly. More than 10 billion apps have been downloaded cumulatively since the launch of the Apple App Store — the majority of them via iPhones. But this doesn’t stop iPhone owners from being the most frequent mobile Internet users: 72% of European iPhone owners (and 63% of US iPhone owners) access the mobile Internet on a daily basis.

The mobile Web and apps offer different benefits and serve different audiences. For now, mobile apps make the most of smartphone features because they integrate more deeply and more widely with the unique features of smart mobile devices that use an operating system. However, mobile websites cost less to reach a wider audience. The majority of consumers don’t own a smartphone and don’t access app stores; they are more likely to use a mobile browser and to access the Internet from their mobile phones. The barriers to accessing a site via a browser are lower than those to downloading an app — even for smartphone owners. Also, the fragmented nature of the mobile industry means that porting apps to different platform environments costs money — particularly when including maintenance and promotion costs.

I have covered this issue in more detail in a new Forrester report “Why The “Web Versus Application” Debate Is Irrelevant To Your Mobile Product Strategy.” Clients can access the report here.

Moving forward, both technologies will improve over time but will continue to coexist. Apps will benefit from mass-market smartphone penetration, but a majority of consumers across the globe will access the Internet, not apps. Mobile browsing technologies will improve significantly. Device-centric information like location increasingly can pass to the browser, while better user experiences and more rich-media-centric mobile websites are now available. HTML5 will greatly improve the audio and video capabilities of mobile browsers. However, it will be at least three years before the technology fully matures. It has to reach critical mass on consumers’ mobile handsets and in developers’ minds.

Improved browsing technologies will force apps to evolve. Too many existing apps fail to make the most of devices’ local features. In addition to talking to the local device, next-level apps should also talk to other apps through open APIs and interact with other devices. Apps will remain the best tools for engagement and will offer new business opportunities. Mobile apps currently present better opportunities for stronger engagement — not only because they offer richer services and experiences, but also because they place the brand icon on the user’s home screen. When coupled with a strong analytics tool, they also enable companies to better capture consumer behavior and even to develop more actionable CRM programs.  Moving forward, apps will provide better experiences by improving their exploitation of context and will expand into new areas like medical care and home security.

While we expect browsers and apps to coexist on tablets and smartphones in the next three to five years, the rise of the application era will have implications for existing business models and will open up new opportunities. Mobile services will be one of many customer touchpoints. App innovation started on smartphones, but the concept of app stores will expand to other increasingly connected devices and platforms. Apps will become touchpoints for content services. They will have to work across all platforms — including mobile, TV, and the PC. No matter what the technology used — be it a traditional Internet website on a PC or a mobile app on a mobile device — consumers will expect a seamless, cross-channel user experience. The service will have to be contextualized depending on the device’s form factor and the location from which the user is using her connected device.

That’s the reason why you will need a new cross-platform approach to loyalty. In the multidevice, multiconnection world, product strategists need more than a good product with a connection to win customer loyalty — they need to create a digital customer relationship and deliver that in a continuously connected experience across many devices. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the app versus mobile Web debate: What are you planning to develop? What are your consumers using? Please comment below!