By Chris Lee
Mobile apps have fascinated marketers over the last few years, with many creating their own for download onto smart phones. Apps have one single clear advantage over a website for the mobile user in that, so long as it’s well made, it can provide a far better user experience. But with so many developed solely for the iPhone (6.75 per cent of the US mobile market), Android-based systems (7.75 per cent) and BlackBerry (8.53 per cent), it could be argued that less than a quarter of the mobile market is being served.
According to Andy Budd, managing director of user experience and web design agency Clearleft, this has led to an “application gold rush”, with companies rushing to stake their claim. While some early app pioneers struck metaphorical gold, many prospectors in this gold rush arrived to find a very different market to the one they had expected.
For Budd, those companies lured into app development have found competition tough, especially as consumers appear to have lost some of their appetite for mobile applications, falling back instead on the few must-have staples.
“Recent studies have shown that we tend to limit our usage to a few core applications and the bulk of apps never even get opened. Furthermore, smart-phone usage is still fairly low in the UK, making it difficult to gain scale” he warned.
So, despite newspapers and magazines hailing the iPad as the saviour of the publishing industry, and blue chip companies rushing to create trophy apps, does Budd believe it really makes business sense to jump on the application bandwagon?
“For a lot of companies I believe the answer is no,” he said. “Good app design takes a level of time and investment that is hard to justify commercially. Only the international brands have the mindshare and level of traffic they need to guarantee scale. Even then, most of them rush out poorly designed and undifferentiated applications with no real user need. I mean, who loves <insert generic high street brand> enough to download its dedicated store finder when you can get the same information from Google, usually a lot quicker?”
Budd said that one common trend is for organisations to create near carbon copies of their website, in app form. These apps are often paid-for, in an attempt to claw back some revenue for content that up to now has been given away for free. However, this is rarely a successful strategy as consumers are savvy and mobile usage patterns are quite specific.
“If you are thinking of creating an application that is almost identical to your Web experience, why create a dedicated app at all? Mobile browsers have come a long way and recent advances in HTML and CSS mean you can create a mobile optimised version of your site for a fraction of the price,” Budd said.
Even dedicated mobile sites are relatively easy to produce and are likely to reach more people than your device-specific mobile app, Budd said.
“I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t commission mobile applications. We just need to be careful about what we build and why,” he concluded. “There is still ‘gold in them there hills,’ but it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find and a lot more expensive to extract. The days of the gold rush are now over and we need to view applications as a business rather than a faddish get-rich-quick scheme. So where’s your mobile strategy?”