This is part 3 of a five-part series covering the issues in the mobile web vs app debate. In this article I look at where the burden lies with each technology – the consumer, developer, manufacturer or carrier.

Using new technologies to promote a brand provides it with a trendy, cutting edge image. The new technology today is mobile, and mobile apps are clearly the trendiest way to go mobile. While a well thought out and well designed mobile web presence can achieve the same effect, it doesn’t nearly have the same sex appeal of an app. So if both means lead to the same ends, why are apps the hot ticket, and who bears the burden of each technology?

To be clear, apps are more popular because manufacturers and carriers are pushing them through advertising and marketing messages. Why? Because apps place no burden on them whatsoever, but place all the work squarely on the shoulders of developers and consumers. The only thing the manufacturers are doing is hosting a store for the apps, and for that service, many are skimming up to 30% of the proceeds that go through their stores. Carriers, if they are not hosting an app store, carry no burden whatsoever. Furthermore, apps have the effect of locking a consumer to a handset and carrier. If a consumer changes handsets, or changes carriers, access to apps are lost. By buying into apps, consumers are implicitly locking themselves into a handset and carrier solution.

On the other hand, there is significant burden on manufacturers and carriers to support the mobile web. Manufacturers have to design handsets that can handle the varying demands of the web since they cannot control the design and functionality of the sites as they do with apps. Carriers have to design networks that can handle the mobile traffic generated from the mobile web. To top it off, a mobile web presence does not lock a consumer to a manufacturer/carrier solution. With the mobile web, consumers are free to switch among handsets and carriers without a penalty in functionality. This flexibility puts the power in the hands of the consumer and does not benefit the carriers or manufacturers.

The fact of the matter is that manufacturers and carriers love apps because they lock us, the consumers, in. Why would they want to promote a device and carrier/handset agnostic solution so when something better comes along, you can up and leave and move to the next best deal. Carriers and manufacturers makes apps look appealing, because they benefit.

For developers, an analysis of the iPhone App Store reveals the high risk they face when creating a mobile app. There are currently around 60,000 apps available, and recent reports indicate that there have been over 1.5 billion downloads. A quick analysis reveals that the average download number for an app is around 25,000. So for every app that has 250,000 or more downloads, there are at least 10 apps that have few, if any, downloads to maintain the average. In other words, less than 10% of the apps in the store see any significant success. Even then, no one is reporting how many apps are deleted or forgotten about after the initial download, or how many apps fail to make the upgrade transition across handsets and carriers. A developer has the huge burden of developing an engaging, long-lasting app in order to get the most exposure for the brand and return on investment from their app development cost. The mobile web places a similar burden on the developer of creating an engaging site, but with a mobile web presence, a developer can quickly incorporate feedback from users to change content, update functionality, and change messaging to maintain an engaging site. In summary, a mobile web presence gives a developer room to maneuver and react to feedback and change, whereas an app has very little margin for error.

In addition to placing burden on the developer, apps place a great deal of burden on the consumer. Consumers are responsible for sifting through the app stores to find apps they want, making sure apps are compatible with their handset, evaluating apps, and staying current with the latest versions. Should a consumer decide to switch handsets or, worse yet, lose or break an existing handset, they are responsible for remembering which apps were on their phone, finding them (again), and reloading them. Does having a mobile web presence relieve all the burden from the consumer? No, not all of it, but it definitely reduces it significantly since the developer, handset manufacturer and carrier are responsible for providing the user with a great experience, rather than pushing that responsibility to the consumer. In an era where consumers are expecting more from their technology and looking to brands that provide outstanding service, making consumers rely on apps to interact with your brand in the mobile environment seems to be a risky endeavor and more regression rather than progression in marketing.

Bottom line, beware the lure of apps. Sure, a well designed app can have a huge impact on the power of your brand. However, a mediocre or poorly designed app can have an equally damaging effect on your brand. On the other hand, while a mobile web presence is a safer choice by relieving burden from the developer and consumer, the rewards may not be as high. Your choice of mobile presence is definitely a game of risk/reward. So the real question becomes, how much of your brand’s image are you willing to risk in the mobile environment?

Tomorrow I will look at how the type of content, static or dynamic, affects the decision to choose the mobile web or an app for your mobile presence.