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How To Choose Your Mobile Development Strategy

There are really only three choices for optimizing your mobile development. How to pick the right one.
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The proliferation of mobile devices presents big opportunities for business owners, but the mobile revolution begs a new question: " I have a mobile presence -- but is it the right kind of presence?" If you’ve heard murmurs of mobile optimization, start listening, because they’ll only grow louder. But don’t be daunted: Identifying the best mobile strategy for your business is simply a matter of identifying the right approach.

Option No. 1: Mobile Applications

Mobile apps are downloaded and installed on the user’s mobile device – no browsers required. The three main app stores -- Apple, Android and Blackberry -- operate in similar fashions but vary in their offerings. Apps may pull content directly from the Internet, similar to a mobile website, but they also can download data to a user’s mobile device, locally storing information and making that content available offline.

Choose it: If you need to leverage the hardware capabilities of mobile phones, apps are the only way to go. Are you going to be using a phone’s accelerometer? Built-in GPS? Need a seamless way access a phone’s camera to make sharing pictures even more social? Take notes from Instagram and Pinterest, and build an app.

Apps are also valuable if WiFi becomes unavailable: With an app, customers can access your content even if they’re not within range of service. Apps are useful for casual games – Angry Birds, anyone? – as well as e-commerce sites such as Amazon and Gilt. Lastly, apps offer more advanced encryption options than even the most secure websites.

Lose it: Apps require an initial download, which means an extra step for users. Down the line, upgrades will require additional downloads. And unlike mobile sites, apps may come with a price tag. They also tend to be more costly and time-consuming on the development side. If you’re tight on time or money, or if your end goal is reaching the broadest audience possible, start with a mobile website.

Option No. 2: Mobile Sites

If your company has a standard website, congratulations: It can be accessed by a mobile device. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that it will be pretty. Users may have to contend with long loading times, flash animation that doesn’t work, bad graphics and microscopic print. A mobile website sidesteps those pitfalls because it's designed specifically for handheld displays and touch screens. When visiting a mobile website, you’ll say good-bye to your old URL friends (w,w, and w), and get redirected to an “m.website.com” address.

Choose it: This is your go-to option if you need to deliver simple content to a mobile device on a budget. If the content on your site is dependent on a user’s immediate location, you should have a fully functional mobile website. This is a must-have option especially if your business operates primarily with a mobile app, like Yelp or Urbanspoon, and you want to mimic an app experience when someone lands on your website from a mobile device.

Lose it: Think of a mobile site as the Cliff Notes version of your standard website. It should only be used for simple actions and access to the most critical details, while providing a button that links to the full site. If you can’t sum up your content into a few basic sections, a mobile website probably isn’t for you.

Option No. 3: Fully Responsive Design

Essentially, fully responsive design allows you to seamlessly transition between web, tablet and mobile devices without losing any content. It relies on agile “media queries:” Web developers specify a media type (e.g., a particular type of screen) as well as a particular condition (e.g., width, height or orientation of content). The media query combines types and conditions to specify how the web content will appear on that device. For example, when you view your company’s website on a desktop, the content may appear in two columns. If you view the same site on a smaller display, the content may condense into a single column. You’ll know a website is using fully responsive design if you shrink the browser window and see images, modules and buttons resizing on the fly.

Choose it: If you need to mirror the content that you would expect to see on a desktop, using a responsive design makes the most sense. Mobile sites and apps often provide different or condensed content; fully responsive design maintains your content, but optimizes the format in which it appears. If you can make the investment, this is the most seamless way to make your content accessible on a variety of mobile phones and tablets.

Lose it: Your business may actually be better suited to a pared-down mobile experience. Mobile users who access restaurant sites, for example, don’t need to meet the staff or read the restaurant’s history – they just need a snapshot of the menu. Similarly, travel service or review sites such as TripAdvisor don’t have a reason to provide their mobile users with a full website. For many businesses, fully responsive design may be overkill.

Fully responsive design could eventually become the best practice as we increasingly use different devices other than computers and smartphones to access the Internet. At some point, it will be easier and cheaper -- regardless of industry or business -- to design a single website that is fully optimized across all kinds of devices, as opposed to taking the time to optimize the mobile experience for each device. But only you can tell if your business has reached that point.

IMAGE: Flickr/Ghettispag
Last updated: Mar 22, 2013

BENJAMIN WALD | Columnist

Benjamin Wald is a successful technology entrepreneur and investor. Ben?s passion for social impact, software and education support his ambition to change the world through technology. He is now the Managing Partner of Spartan Systems.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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