Mobile apps: The current market

Apple has announced that more than 15 billion applications had been downloaded from their app store within the past three years, suggesting that if anything, app downloads are increasing in popularity.  When you talk about these kind of figures, it is understandable why companies are so keen to get on the app bandwagon. Whilst many executives get fixated on having an iPhone app, developing for iOS is just the tip of the iceberg.

This does not take into account the other smartphone operating systems including the likes of Android, RIM, Windows and Symbian; platforms which as of March 2011, account for more than 75% of the UK market. Then throw into the mix that apps are no longer just for smartphones; tablets have arrived - adding to the increasing array of platforms to develop for.

Aside from the largest of companies, many simply do not have the budget to justify developing an individual app for each platform. This realistically leaves a couple of options. Firstly, you could target a specific platform (or even a couple if budget permits), which may well be the majority of your target audience. Secondly, develop a solution which can be applied across all platforms – namely web apps.

SmartphoneThe uprising of web apps

The new wave of web applications is effectively an encapsulated term for the use of web technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. These are technologies of which web developers are already familiar with, which means development time is far quicker, and is accessible to not just mobile devices, but desktops, tablets, TVs and more. The introduction of new functionality and features means it has become a real competitor to native mobile applications. Web apps have rich interfaces, they can be used offline and can to some degree even make use of the device’s hardware (e.g. Geolocation API which can be used for accessing the user's physical location).

There have also been efforts to replicate the success of the app store distribution model, with the likes of Google setting up their own web app store for the Chrome browser – the Chrome Web Store. The Chrome Web App Store takes just a 5% commission on sales and in-app purchases - as opposed to the 30% commission Apple charges on its native app store which is clearly an incentive. More web app stores are opening and Mozilla is one of the latest reputable organisations to set up shop.

Web apps bypass any censoring or approval process, which means updates and implementation are instantaneous. They can be installed on the device home screen, just like native apps. To further blur this distinction, it's even possible to develop a web app to work offline.

Click to read part 2 of Chris Bell's excellent guide to mobile strategy.