Smart phones and tablets are changing the way that consumers interact with brands. No longer is it just an online web experience at the office or at home, but now consumers are making purchases, travel arrangements, checking bank statements and extending their experiences with companies on the go.

For top online retailers such as Amazon and eBay, mobile purchases were respectively $1bn and $2bn for 2010 and global m-commerce is predicted to reach US$119 billion in 2015. Couple this with the fact that many mobile web users are mobile-only and don’t ever access the web via a desktop. Developing countries have particularly high mobile-only web users with Egypt at 70% and South Africa at 57%, though even in the UK, 22% of subscribers are mobile-only, according to On Device Research.

So brands need to focus on mobile as much as web as part of a digital strategy, but what is the difference between mobile web apps and native apps, and what solutions will HTML5 and cross-mobile platforms provide?

Mobile web apps vs native apps

A native app is a mobile application that is specifically designed to run on a device’s operating system and typically needs to be adapted for each. For example, a native application developed for the iPhone will need to run on the iOS platform, a Blackberry app on RIM, and Java for Android devices.  A mobile web app is usually developed in a browser-rendered language such as HTML combined with JavaScript and the app is accessed through a web browser from your mobile phone.

The advantages and disadvantages of mobile web and native apps

One of the big advantages of native apps is the user experience including speed and performance which ensures higher user adoption, usage volume and user engagement i.e. duration of usage per session. A Global Intelligence Alliance study comparing web and native apps showed that 30% of publishers saw a 100% increase in usage volume and engagement on native apps compared to web apps. However, this is only part of the story as usage depends on the mobile handsets of your customers. Research by Kony Solutions showed a 30% higher conversion rate for native iPhone apps versus typical mobile websites, while native Android apps have the same conversion rate as mobile websites, and native BlackBerry apps had lower conversion rates.

The primary advantage of a mobile web application is cost as web developers are far more readily available than those skilled in native programming languages. The Global Intelligence Alliance study showed that over 50% of respondents felt web apps are both cheaper and faster to develop and maintain; 23% claim cost savings of more than 100% compared to native apps. Another advantage is that web apps are run on common browsers that can be accessed on any web-enabled smartphone, so device-specific customisation is much simpler from a developer standpoint. However from a consumer standpoint, web apps have traditionally represented a cost disadvantage particularly when roaming across countries.

HTML5 and cross-mobile platforms

The enhanced HTML5 is translating into greater functionality for mobile web apps. Native apps still have more features but one of the big advantages is that HTML5 optimises apps for different devices from mobile phones to internet TV i.e. the format changes to fit the screen. New functionality also includes video tags as iOS does not support Flash sites, geo-location to contextualize the content, and some of the features available in native apps.

In addition to HTML5, cross-mobile platforms such as PhoneGap and Appcelerator allow developers to refactor an app across all platforms. This fundamentally changes the approach and cost for content providers as apps don’t need to be built over and over for different operating systems and when new devices/operating systems come into the market.

Even with this enhanced functionality, mobile web apps still do not have the same level of functionality as native apps. Thus the argument for a native or mobile web app comes down to cost and functionality. It is cheaper to develop and maintain a mobile web app, but users will have greater functionality from a native app. In an increasingly mobile world, the nature of your business and how you want consumers to interact with your brand will be the determining factor.