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When thinking of developing a mobile presence for an eCommerce site, many people think of apps first and mobile web second. For most, I think this is the opposite of what it should be, but many companies continue to get lured by the sexiness of app development, the possibilities of native platforms and he huge success of some apps. Native app development is certainly appropriate and necessary in some cases, but there are three good reasons to look to mobile web first:

Lower Cost of Development: Native app development skills are growing at a fast pace within the developer community, but can still be quite expensive when compared to typical web UI programming costs. There are a growing number of companies that provide offshore mobile development at affordable rates, but there still exists the need to be able to manage an offshore development team, even if with an onshore project manager. Included with the cost of development is the cost of deployment, which can be complicated by the gating effect of app stores, especially Apple’s appstore. Trying out functionality via mobile web most often leverages an investment already made in similar functionality on a web site by many companies and this can be a shortcut to testing functionality with your users. You can always decide to develop native apps when a real need has been demonstrated for functionality that truly requires a native implementation.

Similar Capabilities: The vast majority of functionality that an eCommerce site requires needs is capable of being developed in both mobile web and native technology. With the addition of the html5 canvas and gesture aware javascript libraries, so much more is possible than just a few years ago. Push notifications remain one thing that, should they be required, still require native mobile development to be leveraged to the fullest extent. Native development should also be considered if high performance of key UI components is required and cannot be implemented using caching, manifest files, and similar techniques to make web apps more responsive and available offline. An early example of an app that “installed” itself and looked almost like a native app is forecast.io. In reality, this is a bookmark but using standard mobile web development techniques, it looked and (mostly) felt as if it was a native application.

Limited Success of Most Native Apps: The latest Visionmobile Developer Economics Report shows the reality of mobile app success. A tiny 1.6% of app developers earn the majority of revenue for paid applications which is an interesting statistic, whether you have a paid app or not. It leads to the reality that apps are largely seen as disposable and many are forgotten and deleted just a short time after their install on a mobile device. Most apps simply aren’t seen as must-haves, but are seen as also-rans. This is a very revealing report — take a look.

For these reasons, it is usually a better choice to test mobile functionality using mobile web development techniques and save the investment for native development when the needs are specific to what native does better than mobile web. There are certainly situations where native development is a must, but for eCommerce companies, these situations require careful consideration. The mobile web approach is less expensive, more flexible, and will likely be more successful for many online retailers over the long run.