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iPhone or Android? Key Tips for Publishers Considering Apps

2011 is already seeing Android and Apple battle it out for ascendancy in sales of smartphones and tablets and, more interestingly, in the world of apps and app makers. Media organizations navigating this terrain have a lot of factors to weigh before taking the plunge and creating a serious presence on these increasingly important platforms.

Thanks to some hard-won experience from PRX's own successful iOS and Android adventures, I'm going to tackle common questions and concepts related to media apps. (This post is Part 1 of a two-part story.) For a deeper technical dive I recommend visiting labs.prx.org, where our developers hold forth.

Why go 'Native'? Won't the mobile web win out?

These questions are part of an active debate that is constantly revisited as the landscape shifts, and answers also depend on who is asking. Game developers, e-commerce sites, photo services and media publishers have different needs.

Native apps use code written specifically for a device and operating system, and are able to take advantage of built-in features like multi-touch screens and GPS. Good native apps are more usable overall, make best use of the included functionality (which in Apple's case includes in-app payments, other than donations), are more discoverable through app stores, and offer more distinct branding and identity than a bookmarked web page.

The downside is that good native apps require a significant investment to develop and maintain, and you have to build different ones for each platform. Android has the additional challenge of fragmentation across devices and carriers, meaning in some cases you have to worry about optimizing an app for particularly problematic combinations. Check out Wikipedia's rundown of the proliferating universe of Android devices.

While there are a variety of emerging low-cost templatized services for app development -- Josh Benton built his own for the Nieman Lab for $624, and RedFoundry has some smart stuff in the works -- genuine specific custom app development is a costly and time-consuming affair. Developers are in high demand and a freelance contract could run you $125 per hour, with a solid app costing anywhere from $10,000 on the simple side to upwards of $100,000 for more complex projects, plus ongoing maintenance, support, improvements. (I'll talk about ways to recoup these costs in Part 2 of this story).

Meantime, HTML5 and the mobile web are advancing, and at a minimum offer a compelling way to optimize your web presence for mobile. No one knows if or when HTML5 might suffice and custom apps are rendered unnecessary, but my guess is there will remain a critical gap for years to come.

Ultimately, if you want a distinct offering on iOS and Android, but also want something accessible for the hundreds of other mobile platforms now web-enabled, you'll need to take on all of the above.

iOS or Android? Do I have to do both?

Market share alone would argue for addressing both, and depending on your target audience there's RIM, Windows, Symbian, etc. (Check your current analytics to see which platforms are already hitting your site.) Media organizations with existing online audiences will quickly learn that launching on iOS only will provoke an impatient if not hostile reaction from growing legions of Android users. (Be prepared -- the pitched battle of tech giants Apple and Google is somehow subconsciously absorbed into their users' feelings about how they are treated by app developers.)

Unfortunately for the native path, there's really no such thing as "porting" an app from iOS to Android. These are different beasts -- from deep code, to UI conventions, to user habits, to app store navigation and discovery.

In PRX's experience, our partners tend to want to start with an iPhone app, followed by Android, followed by an iPad app that does more than just offer a bigger version of the first.

That's all for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll talk more about app strategy, monetization, impact, and hopes for the future.

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