Thursday, February 10, 2011

Should Libraries Create Native or Web Apps?

I have been having an increasing number of conversations with colleagues about the creation of mobile apps. Much of the conversation is not about IF apps are needed, but instead they are focused on how apps should be developed.

There are two different types of mobile apps with each technique having advantages and disadvantages.

The apps one would find in the iTunes App Store or the Android Marketplace are known as "native" apps. Native apps are pieces of software that must be installed on the device and in most cases are downloaded from a distribution point. A Web app, on the other hand, is not a piece of software but a web site optimized for viewing on mobile devices. A well designed Web app can have all the look and feel of a native app.

Develop a Native App if:
  • your library needs to take advantages of all the features built into the device itself. For example, to vibrate the phone or use GPS. However, this will be changing soon as HTML5 rolls out. Web application developers are already using solutions like PhoneGap, an open source framework suite that provides support for a variety of device features on a variety of platforms. (video)
  • your library needs to make sure content or service is available offline. If the core purpose of your application is to make your content available without an Internet connection, then a native app is needed.
  • performance and user responsiveness is crucial
  • your library is looking to try to make money directly from the sale of the app
  • your application needs to access the device file system

Develop a Web app if:

  • your library web site has all the same content that will be featured in the app
  • your library is interested in potentially reaching users on different devices and platforms with the same app. An Apple native app can only be used on iDevices and is not easily ported to other platforms such as Android and BlackBerry. Web apps are platform-agnostic.
  • your library wants its app content to appear in search engine results. Library users are begin to demand that library mobile content shows up in those results optimized for mobile devices. Content is a native app will not show up in Internet search results.

General considerations:

  • Native app development cold be more expensive than building web apps since a greater skill set is required to build apps for multiple platforms.
  • Native apps requires the use a software development kit supplied by each operating system creator.
  • Developing apps for multiple platforms would require a maintaining and creating enhancements for each.
  • Native app user interfaces tend to be smoother and takes greater advantage of the full graphics capabilities of a device.
  • Web apps require round trips to the server where the app is hosted whereas with a native app that time is almost instantaneous.
  • Web app content us more current because it refreshes itself from the network.
  • Most native app stores require approval. Web apps can be deployed immediately.
  • Native apps require updates to be installed. Web app changes are immediate.
  • Native apps may be more secure.

Meredith Farkas. The Library in Your Pocket: Mobile Trends for Libraries

Brian Fling. Mobile Design and Development: Practical concepts and techniques for creating mobile sites and web apps

Lorraine Paterson. Designing for Mobile Devices in Higher Education Research

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