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Decisions: App or Mobile-Optimised Website?

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Nothing stays the same for very long when it comes to technology. In the space of 25 years, we’ve gone from mobile phones being enormous, cumbersome devices designed only for wealthy businesspeople to being tiny devices owned by almost everybody and viewed as essential. The capabilities of those phones have changed over time, too. At the turn of the century, phones were capable of doing little more than calling and texting – and texting was still a novelty. A few years later, the mobile internet arrived. We all marvelled at the capabilities of the internet delivered to small screens by WAP. We knew that the websites we saw on WAP weren’t the same as the websites we visited on our desktops and laptops, but we didn’t mind because we thought it was a neat trick. When the “real” internet finally became available on mobile phones, it blew our minds.  

Why the history lesson?  

We mention all of this because it’s relevant to where we are with mobile technology today. Even as recently as five years ago, it was common for big companies and service providers to have specially-optimised “mobile” versions of their websites designed for people browsing on their phones rather than through their computers. In many cases, this meant that the version of a website (and, therefore, a product or service) that a customer saw on their mobile device was inferior to the quality of experience that someone visiting a website on their laptop computer would have. This was intolerable to businesses – especially given how rapidly trends were changing in terms of the number of people who did their web browsing on mobile rather than while sitting at a computer. Web design wasn’t capable of bridging the gap back then, so the best solution was to come up with an app.  

By asking users to download an app, companies could take complete control over the user’s digital experience. The app might not look much like the company’s website – which was sometimes a deliberate choice – but so long as it provides a high-quality user experience and allows the business that owns the app to make sales, it does its job. That’s been the case for several years now, and it’s still a commonly-held belief that if you operate an eCommerce business, you need both an app and a website. That might no longer be true.  

Amazon exits stage left 

Amazon was one of the first big companies to take full advantage of the potential of apps. The Amazon app has been available for more than a decade and puts the full Amazon marketplace in the hands of whoever downloads it. It’s an exercise in simplicity, and yet it misses none of the features of the larger website. It might not be the prettiest app you’ll ever see, but it’s among the most effective and is considered a benchmark across the industry. Where Amazon leads, other businesses tend to follow – but if they follow the company’s latest move, the age of the app might end.  

Amazon shocked the world a few days ago by announcing it would terminate digital downloads via its app. Customers will no longer be able to purchase e-books or digital content of any other kind through the Amazon app. Instead, they have to go to the Amazon website to do it. They can still do this by opening Amazon’s website through the browser on their mobile device, but they can’t do it through the app itself. The policy has been introduced worldwide, effective immediately. It doesn’t apply to all of the products and services customers can buy through the app yet – not by a long shot, in fact – but it’s the first sign of a company of Amazon’s size cutting ties with apps and returning focus to its website. Big businesses have spent the past few years trying to drive traffic to their bespoke apps. If they’re about to backpedal and try to persuade their audiences to come back to their website, it will bring about a sea change in both web design and app design.  

Follow the money 

If you want to get a sense of where design trends and business models with web and app design are going, look to the companies that make the most money from their apps or websites. Amazon, obviously, is a very good example, but we could also look to the online casino industry. Sister Site, which compares and contrasts thousands of casino sites from across the industry, has recently noticed that big-name casino companies have stopped offering standalone apps and started including more content on their websites. It used to be common practice for poker sites to be “download only,” with games off-limits to anybody who didn’t obtain specialist software. Now, the top poker sites are all online again. Very few industries make as much money on the internet as the casino industry does. If they’re slowly retreating from their apps to their websites, something is probably afoot.  

The choice facing you 

Let’s return to a point we made earlier. If you run an eCommerce business, you need to have an impressive, effective website. However, if you have an impressive, effective website, you may no longer need an app to go with it. So long as your website is designed well enough to ensure consistency of experience from laptop to mobile and back again, there’s no longer a need to direct customers to download an app so they can use your services. Technology has moved on. Browser performance on tablets and mobile phones has improved. Apps were invented to bridge a gap, but in many cases, the gap no longer exists.  

There’s something else you ought to bear in mind, too – an app can’t be optimised for SEO. If you work hard at your website and have an intelligent SEO strategy, you’ll eventually begin to reap the rewards as your website, and the pages on it rise through Google’s rankings and attract more customers. An app cannot do the same. It might be a very useful tool for the customers you already have, but it’s difficult for an app to attract new customers. If your website can do everything an app can but can also be a marketing and sales aid, why would you want or need an app at all? We can’t answer that question for you – but it’s one you ought to ask yourself.  

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