This is part 2 of a five-part series covering the issues in the mobile web vs app debate. In this article, I cover the costs of development for the mobile web and apps.

Developing a mobile presence, whether it is for the mobile web or whether it is an app, is not free. There are the obvious costs associated with developing and maintaining a mobile presence, such as paying developers, but there are also other explicit and implicit costs. The four major cost areas can be broken down into creation, release, promotion, and maintenance. Let’s take a look at these costs and see if the mobile web or an app has the advantage.

Creating a presence for the mobile web or an app requires developers to implement. In the case of the mobile web, the development can be leveraged from an existing web presence, but the site still must be optimized for the mobile environment due to screen sizes and multimedia capabilities on mobile devices. Creating a strong mobile site requires optimization for the numerous handsets that exist. While handset requirements can be bundled or limited to the most popular models, it is still a large task. 

A mobile app also requires development across multiple platforms and operating systems. By developing an app for one platform, such as the iPhone, you risk leaving out and alienating a large segment of your addressable audience. To develop an effective app, you need to develop for at least 5 platforms – iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Android – with more app stores either already released or close to launch.

Advantage: A draw. Depending on the complexity, the up front costs of a mobile web presence and an app are very similar.

Releasing your mobile web presence is as easy as releasing a new website. The entire process is under your control. Once you are happy with your design, implementation and content, you are free to release your site.

Mobile apps, on the other hand, require that you release the app into the official store for each platform, if you want the best chance of your app being found. In some cases, such as with the iPhone App Store, the requirements for an app are very strict with respect to content and functionality, and release of the app can sometimes appear to be subjective as documented in our most recent weekly market wrap-up. Additionally, an app has an approval time that requires you to keep the developers engaged longer in case changes are required. The iPhone app approval process, for example, can take up to four weeks, or more!

Advantage: Mobile web. There are no secret gates or controls to release a presence on the mobile web, an app on the other hand has variable, and sometimes costly, explicit and implicit costs.

Both the mobile web and an app require spending time and money on promotion to get noticed. When developing for the mobile web, there are ways you can significantly reduce your promotion cost. For example, by implementing code on your website that directs mobile requests to your mobile web presence, you use the same web address for both your mobile web and internet presence. Using the same address lowers your promotion cost over the long-term since every time you promote your internet presence, you gain the benefit of promoting your mobile presence and vice-versa.

An app requires its own promotion program that has very little leverage, especially given how crowded places like the iPhone App Store have become. Relying on ratings and reviews in the App Store is not advised either, as others have pointed out. Even if your initial promotion is successful at generating hype and downloads, you will need to keep spending time and money on promoting the app, across all the various stores, to keep it in front of people. Otherwise, you risk significantly reducing the return on the up front investment in the development of the app.

Advantage: Mobile web. While the explicit costs of initial promotion are identical, the mobile web wins in the long-term because of the implicit cost savings you get by leveraging the promotion of your existing website.

Updating content, changing messaging, or changing functionality on the mobile web is the same as updating your website. The changes can be done quickly and released immediately, with the whole process under your control. While an app has similar maintenance costs, re-releasing an app to the app stores is not a slam dunk. You have to wait for your app to be approved, and there is no guarantee that functionality and content changes will be approved.

Advantage: Mobile web. There is not much difference in explicit maintenance costs, but the implicit costs associated with releasing changes in a timely, guaranteed manner give the advantage to the mobile web.

Okay, so I am cheating by inserting a fifth area. Flexibility, though, cannot be overlooked. With an app, you need to develop in all or nothing fashion. The app has to contain all of the functionality and messaging you want, otherwise, you need to re-release the app and hope that users will download the latest version. The mobile web, on the other hand, can be released in stages and evolve over time. It gives you the flexibility to grow over time in both functionality and messaging. Last but not least, you have the peace of mind that your mobile presence will not be removed if it is determined that your app suddenly violates the rules of the app store. Don’t believe it’s possible? Check out what happened to this popular Google Voice iPhone app.

Advantage: Mobile web. The ability to release a mobile presence in stages, grow it over time, fix bugs quickly, have no restrictions on functionality and content, update content as necessary, and have peace of mind are benefits that apps are hard-pressed to match.

While up front costs are not materially different for a mobile web or app development, the long-term costs are much higher for an app than the mobile web. If you are developing a mobile presence for a quick, one-off, boost to your product or brand, an app makes as much sense as a mobile web presence. But if you’re looking to engage customers over a long period of time, evolve your messaging, and grow your mobile presence with your product and brand, then the mobile web is the way to go.

Tomorrow I will look at were the burden lies for things like finding, updating content associated with, and maintaining your mobile presence. Is it the consumer, developer, manufacturer or carrier?