There's an app for everything. And more and more companies want us to use their apps. Every day, over 1000 new apps arrive in the app store.
Even coffee shops have their own apps now. You know, you're about to pay for your latte and suddenly they ask you if you have their app. "You can use it to collect points and get discounts! Just go to the app store and download it".
Eh, another app that you'll use once in a few weeks. What's the point in that?
A lot of companies assume that once someone downloads their app, they'll become a returning customer. Send a push notification once in a while and you've got them.
The thing is that having an app itself won't make users come back. As studies show, people download new apps once in a while but then still spend most of their time using only a few ones - Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps.
Does it then make sense to build another app for them? After all, it comes with a bit of a hassle.
A Huge Commitment
To start using an app, you have to download it first. The search in the app store doesn't work that well, so it can take a while. If you're lucky, the company may have a landing page that will get you directly to the download.
Once you're there, you have to confirm the download, type in your password and wait.
It usually takes a while... It slowly downloads... And then it installs...
Then, you have to go through the onboarding process. Decide if you want to get push notifications, allow the app to access your contacts and let it use your location. After that, you can finally start using it.
It can take a few minutes, which is ages in a world where people expect things to happen instantly. It can be a huge commitment that they may be reluctant to make. Especially if they don't know the app or don't expect to use it too often.
When Web Apps Work Just Well
For this more casual kind of relationships, good old web apps will work more than fine.
They bring the convenience of quick access - when you want to use one of them, all you have to do is to type its address in a web browser. No need to go through App Store's checkout or wait until it installs.
When you're done, you can simply close the tab. It doesn't use your local storage, so there's nothing to cleanup if you decide that you don't like it.
The in-app experience won't be as great as the native app could be, but well... people are used to the slightly sluggish interface that web apps already brought to the desktop.
Companies also benefit from that - they have to build the app only once.
To deliver truly great native experience, companies need to build each feature separately for each platform. Supporting three (Android, iOS, Web) versions costs tons of money and requires a large team of developers that will work on them. This often leads to taking shortcuts and delivering a mediocre native experience.
By building only a single web version, companies can focus on delivering great features to their users rather than replicating them across multiple platforms.
When Native Mobile Apps Really Make Sense
On the other hand, there are some cases when having a dedicated mobile app makes sense. It's when the app really needs to use advanced features provided by the mobile OS and not available in web browsers.
Take Pocket for example - a simple app that lets you quickly save articles to read them later. To make saving articles easy, they integrate with the system share dialog. It wouldn't be able to achieve that if it was available only as a web app - you'd have to copy a link, enter their website and paste it to add dialog. Not convenient at all. They also make a great use of the offline capabilities available only for native apps. Once you add articles, they synchronize to your device and are available to read anytime you want.
Instagram uses phone's camera a lot. Taking and editing photos in a web app would be slow and require a lot more transfer. That's enough to ruin the whole experience that people love.
WhatsApp and other messaging apps wouldn't make much sense if they couldn't send push notifications. Mobile web browsers provide a very limited support for them, so IM apps need to have native versions.
And of course games - the biggest category in the app store.
They often make heavy use of phone's graphic and touch capabilities. Many of them come with a huge amount of assets. Downloading them every time someone opens the game is not an option. It's better to download it once and for good.
Don't Mindlessly Follow the App Hype
Beautiful apps are only a nice addition to the business behind them.
What really matters to users is how the apps solve their problems. If they can do that without a native app, maybe there's no need to build one?
After all, building them costs a lot of time and money. If they're only a nice addition, maybe there's a better use of that time.
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