The Mobile Tug Of War: Browser Apps Vs. Native Apps?

In the mad rush to make your travel brand a functional player in the mobile world, there's an ongoing debate as to which approach is best. Should you be building a native application with all its inherent speed and elegance? Creating a browser-based app that leverages your existing web development and is custom-designed to minimize the current limitations of displaying on a mobile device? Or, perhaps, deploy a hybrid model that leverages some virtues of both.

I recently had this exact conversation with Mike Murray, who heads up a company called TripCraft, whose technology platform powers the mobile application it recently built and launched for Mandarin Hotels. Mike has always been a leading thinker when it comes to travel distribution and technology, having created a company called HubX that was sold to SynXis a few years ago (which itself was then bought by Sabre) and, more recently, while he worked at ITA.

Murray said that, originally, TripCraft was squarely on the side of mobile apps, as there was no web-based solution that he felt could match the capabilities of a native app. Since then, a lot of web-based companies that don't have the skills or resources to tackle Apple and/or native app capabilities, have devised their response with the support of HTML5, browsers, etc. In Murray's opinion, the jury is still out on whether or not a browser app can deliver as well as a native app, since so much is still wrapped up in a promise of what's to come and not the reality of what's currently here.



Interestingly, Murray says that TripCraft has backed away from its original native bias and now feels the smart approach calls for remaining agnostic to the choices of native app, browser app, Apple, Google, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, etc. He reasons that the market is evolving at a torrid pace, and it has the biggest, baddest technology companies in the world vying for leadership. So for anyone to pick a side or strategy and declare themselves an expert, he feels is "ignorant, arrogant and downright foolish."

Perhaps that explains why TripCraft has wisely been pushing the uniqueness of its platform and its ability to work across native and browser apps, rather than choosing sides.

As you contemplate your own approach to mobile in the travel space, Murray offers up these recommendations and advice:

1. Every travel/hospitality brand should have a mobile website.

2. Any strong travel/hospitality brand should have a mobile app, if:

- It feels its brand merits one, or in more direct terms, if a hotel is a well-known, full-service property with repeat customers (or the desire to have them), then it should consider a native app. If it is a little-known independent or franchise property, then it's probably not worth it.

- It wants a more personal and direct interaction with its customers.

- It understands that web app functionality that matches native app functionality is at best a few years away and, at worst, might never happen.

- It wants to promote its brand in a more progressive, interactive and elegant manner.

- It wants to expand its capabilities beyond a simple mobile brochure or booking engine. There is a whole new wave of on-property and near-property based services that is best addressed with a native app.

3. If Google and (especially) Apple are betting on mobile apps, then you should really consider the intelligence and/or agenda of any industry pundit, consultant or speaker that tells you not to think about a mobile app. It's important to understand that Apple puts apps first with a strategy that software should come to the consumer. Google puts the browser first with a strategy that the consumer should go to the software. But both companies are clearly embracing both strategies.

Apple has clearly bet big on apps as the future and is designing the next version of its desktop operating system to act just like its mobile operating system -- lots of small, simple apps with easy access from an online Apple store. While this approach scares most other tech vendors (since they don't have the ecosystem, consumer awareness or loyalty that Apple has), they're all spending big to try to catch up.

4. Mobile devices by their very nature are meant to be used with native software. They have lots of built-in hardware capabilities that lend themselves to software running on the device. If everything was going to be based on a browser, then all this hardware power wouldn't be needed.

What's clear in this debate is that the mobile phenomenon is unlike anything that has ever happened before, so, as Murray rightly points out, to try to project an outcome based on current or past experiences is foolish.

There are more smart devices than TVs, telephones, computers and any other electronic communications device in existence. Yet, the game remains in its early stages, so we only know where things are going directionally -- not where it's all going to end up.

Murray ended our conversation by saying, "IPad was the fastest-selling media device ever and net books (based primarily on everything being online) were a huge flop. What does that tell you?"

I say plenty.

This Just In: Top Upscale Hotels
1 Marriott
2 Embassy Suites and Hilton
3 Hyatt
4 Radisson
5 Swissotel
6 Sheraton
7 Wyndham
8 Doubletree
9 Westin
Source: Brand Keys Customer
Loyalty Engagement Index 2011

3 comments about "The Mobile Tug Of War: Browser Apps Vs. Native Apps? ".
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  1. Timothy Murphy from Keynote Systems Inc., February 7, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.

    Always a great topic and good recommendations for Travel companies. Keynote Systems recently worked with Adobe Scene7 on smartphone user research and largely came to a similar position As little as a year back it seemed that apps would take over, but now many are recognizing that the mobile browser is the best first step in many industries. Just last week we began to publish mobile travel with our publically available performance indices It's certainly not something I would have predicted not so long ago.

  2. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics, February 8, 2011 at 4:10 p.m.

    I agree with Murray whole heartedly about the movement of the space and the foolishness of declaring oneself an expert. It would be like watching a thrown dart go by and claiming to be an expert on the dart's position in space at any given moment in time.

    I hear a lot of these mobile experts so focused on getting business in the short term that they fail to guide properly over the long term, even if it means advising outside of their own core competencies.

    Here at Loop, we tend to look at brands & mobile as an opportunity to capture a position in a consumers purse & pocket, a place within reach of most consumers more than 15 hours of every day. It is truly is unlike any other communications media channel ever.

    So when given the task of recommending WEB or APP to a brand in the strategic goal of capturing and retaining this P&P position, how do we make the play?

    We don't. It isn't about what you use to do it, things are too fluid for that right now. It's about *that* you do it, that you do it better and before your competitor. It's about making sure that once you do it you absolutely keep doing it the best so you cannot be unseated.

    In a world where many brands are still stung from digital marketing vehicles that contained no methodological way of measuring actual impact on brand perceptions or botton line, making sure you can measure it is no longer a 'nice to have' and mobile makes it so that ROI can be built in, but most of the time you need an app in the mix for that - not always.

    Consumers might have 2 TV's, a few computers in their lives, and they might share those devices with one to many people - but that mobile channel is a personal link to them, so PUSH, location and other opt-in communication vehicles *must* be captured. In some cases, WAP isn't able to capitalize here either, again, maybe HTML 5 fixes this - maybe it doesn't.

    If it does fix it, as an RFC language, how long before devices evolve beyond it and brands have to reset, meanwhile, the device languages evolve along with the devices? Does this mean the app evolves at the same speed as the app while WAP is constrained to evolving at the speed of the web?

    We could seat brands into mobile WAP only strategy, and conversely we could insist on only building the faster, smarter and infinitely more measurable efforts that are apps.

    But if you are a brand reading this, you'll know you are talking to the right mobile strategist when you're hearing less about what they are capable of doing for your brand in mobile, and more of what your brand is capable of doing in mobile.

    For brands to try & decide that they need EITHER an app OR a mobile site is like cementing their feet to the ground right before lassoing a missile. Mobile is a translation of brand strategy to a channel - nothing more. You tackle the channel the best way the channel allows it.

    Smart mobile brand strategists will advise that this app vs. WAP debate is an entertaining one, but the wrong time to have it.

  3. Sophie Vu from Kony Solutions, February 9, 2011 at 5:27 p.m.

    Gary, you make a great point in saying every travel/hospitality brand should have either a mobile website or app. In today’s business landscape, it’s wrong to think that your company can grow and be successful without a mobile offering. In reality, whether you choose to implement a mobile website or app is not as important as choosing to dedicate the necessary time and resources to developing a sound mobile strategy – and simply creating a mobile WAP wrapper is not enough! There are so many options for consumers that if a mobile website/app does not meet their expectations they can easily move on to another company’s offering that will. My company, Kony, recently completed a survey that found that 31 percent of American mobile phone users would be less likely to use a travel application/website after it malfunctioned, and 25 percent would tell others about their bad experience. To protect against this it’s vital that companies are providing them with comprehensive offerings that implement new technologies.

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