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Native of web app?



Native of web app?

Audio Trails boast a rich back catalogue of location-aware native apps for heritage sites and tourist attractions. They have now launched a web equivalent. Creative Director Dan Boys explains the pros and cons of both approaches.

When it comes to software, location-aware apps are what we (Audio Trails) specialise in. For us, a location-aware app uses location (via a potential combination of GPS, mobile connectivity, wifi and/or bluetooth beacons) to automatically alert the user to relevant digital content (text, images, audio, video) within the proximity of a device. It will also tell you how far away you are from other content. This content may refer to a place of interest, an event or a walking trail.

For many years we have been building native apps – designed specifically for iOS and Android devices – on behalf of local authorities, charities and communities. Take a look at some examples of our case studies page (audiotrails.co.uk/case-studies/apps). We’ve even built some for ourselves (e.g. Discover Derbyshire & Peak District, Wild Wales and the Ashdown Forest Explorer). These apps have been built on a platform we originally called ‘Welcome To’ but have now renamed ‘Places and Trails’ to coincide with the launch of our web equivalent (placesandtrails.com).

Pros and Cons

Neither offer that silver bullet as like any solution they both have their pros and cons. So how do you decide which one is the best for your specific needs? Let’s take a look at native and web apps in more detail.

Generally, native app creation means writing apps for a specific operating system. Fortunately, today there are only two major players: iOS and Android, and they account for 97.5% of all UK smartphone sales. This wasn’t always the case: remember when Blackberry were big players or Nokia had the most popular operating system?

A web app – essentially a website that formats to the screen size of the device you are viewing – is displayed within a browser. Web apps therefore can be viewed on far more devices, including desktops, and will appeal to iOS or Android users who are fussy about installing new apps or don’t have the memory space to download it.

Barriers to use

And downloading apps is certainly a barrier to use. Quartz Media report that the majority of smartphone owners download zero apps per month. Even those that do will have a limit. Big Medium designer and developer Josh Clark asks: “Are users really going to download, install and manage an app for every company that they interact with?…The app market may be growing but there’s a growing feeling that users can’t wade through 700 new releases a day and that it might be better for developers to refocus on mobile websites.”

That will depend on several factors. What is the context, and the intention for the app? For heritage sites and visitor attractions we need to look at why visitors may want a digital guide. Looking at paper equivalents we all know that when we buy a visitor guide in all probability we won’t look at it again (until we take it to the charity shop), but we buy it to enhance our experience on the day. Therefore, it must inspire the user that the effort of downloading it is worth it.

For some types of mobile experiences, a web app would be appropriate and for others, a native solution would be the way to go. Let’s look at the differences.

Native app Web app
Pros
  • utilise all native features of the device i.e. camera, saving photos
  • works offline
  • faster processing
  • only one app needed
  • much cheaper to set up
  • works on most devices with a web browser
  • no download required, seamlessly links with clients website
Cons
  • need to be downloaded and installed prior to use
  • only work on iOS and Android devices
  • written in two separate languages  – costs more to develop
  • need good 3G/4G signal to access web app
  • limited access to a device’s native features

Connectivity – online or offline

A Web app requires a strong 3G/4G signal or WiFi connection to work as it needs to communicate with a server (although some caching of data is possible). Our native apps can work offline, and whilst we use Google Maps (an online service) as a base map we have incorporated offline mapping into many of our apps. The Ingleborough Archaeological Walks app has offline Ordnance Survey map tiles and our Rufford Abbey app has a lovely illustrative map draped over Google Maps.

screenshots of app maps. afford abbey on left, Ingleborough on the right

Different ways maps can be displayed in our Places and Trails native apps

A temperamental connection can interrupt an immersive experience. In addition, users will probably have their own data plans but may be wary of downloading/streaming rich content to support a media-rich web app experience with audio and images.

Native app users can download and install before they visit (but only if they know about it!), and be ready to use the app when they arrive. This is important where connectivity is poor, or for users who are wary about data charges. The analogy I use for native apps comes back to the paper guidebook. You buy it and it contains all the information you require. You don’t need to go back to get extra pages from the shop. Once all the content is downloaded onto the user’s device the experience is more coherent and seamless.

When it comes to speed then a native app will generally be faster than a web-based alternative, responding more quickly to touches, because it doesn’t need to connect to the web every time the user interacts with it. GPS updating on a web app is more intermittent than the fluid movement of the blue orb you see on a native app map. You can also do specialised processing on the native side, running code which wouldn’t operate in a web-based environment. Our native apps seamlessly link with the device’s camera to enable our ‘Souvenir Selfie’ and ‘SUPERimpose’ functionality, and we have used Bluetooth Beacons as an alternative way of alerting users to content. For Kelham Island Museum the beacons act as an indoor GPS, illustrating on a floorpan what ‘zone’ the user is in. At Rufford Abbey the beacons are used at retail and catering outlets to alert visitors to current offers.

Pricing model

In today’s day and age price is a very important factor. To get an iOS and Android app into the relevant stores you will need to development fees upfront. This is not the case for our web apps (see below). Yet both are supported by an intuitive Content Management System (CMS). So what about maintenance and future-proofing?

We never know what the next annual OS release by Apple/Android will do to live apps. Every now and then they introduce a big shake up. Any reputable developer will offer clients a support and maintenance option to cover these eventualities once their app is signed off. Likewise, for clients who use our web app platform (each is assigned their own sub domain e.g. wembleypark.placesandtrails.com) we just charge a monthly fee (which can be paid up to 36 months in advance) to cover hosting, security, maintenance and access to the CMS.

Mobile web apps are relatively cheap to maintain and solidly future-proof. Web browsers are conservative about removing features. HTML5 geolocation is now a well accepted feature in browsers and this is how we alert users to nearby content.

Barriers

Web apps also have the great advantage of being able to be seamlessly linked with the client’s existing website. Take derbyfest.placesandtrails.com for example. Its design mirrors the branding at derbyfeste.com. Users can switch between the two and not realise they have even left the main website. Therefore no signposting to download a native app is required (an oppressive barrier to use). Web apps offer immediate, easy access to the content and experience your users are looking for. No app stores, no installations: just go to a site and the content will be available. As long as you have a connection, it will work.

But of course, the key to success is making sure your visitors know about the app, regardless of whether it is native or web. Make sure your app is clearly signposted on your website and on printed material on site. This way, regardless of which app option you choose, visitors can make their own decision about whether to use it.

The bottom line

Both native and web apps have their advantages and disadvantages. In summary, a web app is easier to access, cheaper, and works across a great range of devices. A native app will be limited to iOS and Android – but it can do more, run faster, and deliver an experience offline.

Neither is ‘right’ or ‘better’; the choice comes down to context, cost and customer. The right solution at the right price is the best choice, and in that regard, web apps and native apps both have a place.

Where now?





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