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Apps & mobile websites demystified

I’m frequently approached by people in business who buttonhole me to ask the following:

“I’ve been told I need an app.” [PAUSE]

“Do I?”

When I gently enquire as to the possible purpose of said mobile app I generally receive a blank look as if the mere presence of the app is all that would be required to ensure its success…

I’m being a little cruel, digital marketing has had its fair share of fads over the years and it’s not surprising that many people might think apps are something that you just need to have to keep up with the competition. 10 years ago people were getting very excited about CD business cards, remember them? CD-ROM media cut down to the size/shape of a credit card, that could house a short video, a PowerPoint and your contact details. A decade ago when I was working in “multimedia” as we used to call it, I was inundated with requests for them by people who thought they were a dream marketing tool. Sadly the reality was that 99% of them went straight in the bin and if you did put them in your CD drive they made a horrendous noise, scaring most people into thinking their computer was about to explode. Funnily enough they didn’t catch on for long…

Mobile usage is not a fad, it’s a communication method people like, want and need and its here to stay. Web browsing is a huge part of that, so are interactive apps and games.

What’s the difference between an app and a mobile website?

Let’s start with apps, think about them like this. You’ve probably used Microsoft Outlook for email at some point. You’ve probably also used Gmail or Hotmail. Outlook is a desktop rather than mobile application, but it’s your email with calendars, notifications, contacts and all sorts of other functions bundled together in a single “app” that does everything you need. Gmail and Hotmail are web-based email you can access through a browser. They are simpler, but portable and handy to view on a phone.

For the last few years computing has been moving away from storing data on your computer’s hard drive and moving it into the “cloud”, data storage available online. Some companies don’t bother to use Outlook at all, but use Gmail as a corporate system. I’ve tried it, it actually works brilliantly!

Apps that once were desktop-based now live in the cloud and are accessed from your phone. Remember Microsoft Autoroute? I used to love that bit of software and it still exists, but Google Maps has meant I now plan journeys from my phone, I don’t need software on my home PC. Even dedicated satnav systems like TomTom are under threat as more people just use their phone and a mobile app.

The essence of a great mobile app is its ability to simplify an interface to make particular tasks easy to do on small devices.

Optimising your website for the smaller screen of a phone or tablet is a different matter. Websites contain much more info, so on a mobile device you’re not trying to simplify tasks, you’re trying to simplify navigation and the ability to read information easily. The revolution in this field has become known as “responsive design”.

Responsive design basically means that your website can recognise the type of device that is viewing it and display itself optimised for that device. Here’s a great example of a responsive design website, the US newspaper The Boston Globe.

You can test it for yourself on a regular web browser, just restore down your browser from its maximised state and drag the corners so the browser gets smaller and smaller. Watch what happens to the page.

The website is responding to the change in screen resolution and adapting on the fly. One website, no duplication of effort or content, just clever thinking and implementation to give the audience a seamless experience.

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