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FutureM Boston 2011: The Great Mobile vs App Debate

Cara Ogar September 29, 2011 Marketing, Technology, Web Design & Development

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This past month we left the rabbit hole and ventured into the city with some of the brightest thought leaders in the marketing industry for a week long conference called FutureM.  Tuning in to the pulse of this community is always inspiring and this year’s events were no exception.  Of all the ideas that bounced around the conference, one in particular stuck with us — the debate over whether a company should implement a mobile site for browsers, create a custom application or implement both strategies.  We attended two events, Building and Marketing for an Increasingly Mobile Future, and The Future of Web Applications: How Tech and Social Pressures Are Creating a Brand New Future For Apps, which ironically lead to great arguments on both sides of the topic.

Our top 3 takeaways from the great debate-

1. Better working definition of a few terms:

Progressive Enhancement – A design practice where one HTML code is utilized and then JavaScript and CSS is layered on top of the HTML for each type of platform.  This means that as a developer you are always building on something.  Todd Parker, one of the guest speakers at the event and a Partner at Filament Group, illustrated this point through a great use of an escalator analogy in one session– if it stops working you can still climb the stairs.

Responsive Web Design – Built for a multitude of platforms, this style of design works off of one code base: HTML, CSS, JavaScript and image library.  The good news about this type of design is that you will only need one code for many types of platforms (smart phones, tablets, laptops etc.)  The bad news is that sometimes having to design with all platforms in mind can create a design that lacks the true depth and detail of platform targeted development.

Mobile Platforms – Used for a broader audience, and great for search and discovery. This allows users to interact like they would using a computer.  Cue the recent Boston.com launch of their mobile site.  Although Boston.com does have an app, people often search news on their phones like they would on their computers, which would then guide their search results to the Boston.com full website.  With this insight, Boston.com was able to provide a well-designed responsive mobile site to accompany their app and establish themselves as leaders in the media industry.

Apps (Applications) – Used for more established, transactional functions.  Most useful because it targets the right device, with the right content and the right user at the right time.  A great example one attendee of the event shared was his love for the Boloco Burrito app.  Boloco realized that their customers knew what they wanted and that they needed it in a hurry.  Their app may be targeting a small population of their consumers, but I’m willing to bet 99% of the time that consumer will order a burrito.

2. A new appreciation for an increasingly mobile future

There is no denying the fact that mobile is here to stay.  With statistics floating around like “there will be more mobile internet users than wireless users by 2015” and  “the average time spent on an iPhone for making calls is 45%,” it’s hard to imagine why brands aren’t jumping on board to be ahead of the curve.  This apprehension was a huge topic and what leads me to point number 3…

3. The need for marketers to push clients to invest in mobile.

This was a hot topic at both events, although especially at Building and Marketing for an Increasingly Mobile Future. First mover advantage was of course on the top of the list to explain to clients. Ability to reach a very targeted market was also mentioned, as well as pointing out statistics like the ones above.  As the world of mobile evolves, it has become clear that agile brands willing to adapt will thrive and those who stand still in fear will fade.

A great example of this is Expedia.  Each week I receive an alert newsletter sent to my email about last minute travel deals, which I usually view on my iPhone.  When I “click here” to see the week’s offerings I get hit with a blaring message -“We’re Sorry… Sorry, we don’t have a mobile version of this page,” which then instructs me that I can visit the full site by another click.  At this point, I usually don’t click through to view the deals in miniature form on their full site.  That’s one sale lost that could have been avoided if Expedia would invest in a mobile platform.

FutureM was a great experience and certainly filled out heads with lots to think about as the mobile market develops.  If you want to learn even more about the great mobile vs app debate Mike Scopino made his presentation from The Future of Web Applications: How Tech and Social Pressures Are Creating a Brand New Future For Apps available online for everyone to view here. Til’ next year, FutureM!


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