M-Learning Decisions: Web App or Native App?

I’ve written a couple of posts about the differences and the advantages and disadvantages of native applications and web applications when it comes to mobile learning. Check out these previous posts on Apps for the future and Google vs Apple to see where I was coming from. And as the field of mobile platforms continues to get more competitive, we will see some platforms gain strength and some lose strength. Some experts see consolidation among platforms (ex. Palm may join with another company to gain strength), and some people see even more platforms emerging.

But one thing seems to be clear and that’s the fact that mobile browsers are getting much better and most newer mobile browsers are implementing the WebKit Open Source framework similar to what Apple did when they created Safari for the iPhone. I think this is a pretty big development for mobile learning because it allows mobile learning content developers to target a single platform – the Web. Native applications are great and can benefit from the performance gains of being on a device. But the newer WebKit based browsers are so capable that many people can’t tell the difference between a well developed mobile web application and a native application (with the exception for gaming and 3D graphics where native applications still have a pretty big performance edge). And since most of us learning professionals already have experience with developing our content for the Web, it seems a natural fit for our current skill sets.

Today I read a good article from InformationWeek.com. InformationWeek is releasing it’s InformationWeek Anylitics report: “Air Pressure: Why IT Must Sort Out App Mobilization Challenges”, which is free for a limited time. You can find the report through the link for the article of the same name here. The article helps illustrate the benefits of the mobile web over native applications for many organizations looking to deploy applications of any kind to their employees or their customers. Here are a few highlights from the article:

“The mobile Web is finally hitting its stride for a number of reasons. The greatest enabler is fast throughput, such as what’s offered by 3G networks. It also doesn’t hurt that so many devices nowadays are Wi-Fi enabled. With typical 3G speeds of 1 Mbps, and latency of 100 to 200 milliseconds, small screens can update in five seconds or less, compared with 10 seconds or more on 2G networks. Sure, five seconds is slower than the sub-second screen updates achieved with local native apps, but it’s still usable. And technologies such as Ajax and Gears allow interaction with locally stored content, significantly improving the user experience even when network responses aren’t instantaneous.”

“Native Vs. Web

So which way should companies go? Native applications–those built using languages such as C++ or Java that execute locally on the device–provide the most responsive user experience while allowing offline operation. However, native applications come with a hefty price–namely, coding environments that are generally more difficult to debug compared with desktop environments. In addition, the application will work only for one particular platform, meaning that companies need to build or buy different versions for BlackBerry, Google, and iPhone devices.

In contrast, the browser model simplifies software sales and distribution considerably, as otherwise application vendors must work with multiple application stores, such as the iPhone and Android stores, and then break apps down further for each platform. Simpler mobile application distribution will encourage greater innovation and development, ultimately benefiting both businesses and consumers. Furthermore, the average IT department has in-house Web content management skills, including authoring expertise. However, not as many departments have the sophisticated skills needed to develop–and debug–native applications.

One survey respondent is sold on the Web approach. “We use BES server to give us relatively secure access to our internal network,” says Alfons Schermaier, senior architect at chemicals manufacturer PPG Industries. “From that point on, we use standard Web app development techniques and a design approach for the application that makes maximum use of the reduced screen real estate. These applications can also be used from a PC browser if needed. Testing is a bit more involved with the multiple target clients, but the applications have greater utility, and once you get the hang of this, you can really start to deliver more quickly.”

I hope this information from InformationWeek helps you in your design and development decisions for mobile learning. I think having a grasp of the IT picture is very important before pursuing a certain strategy. As always, there’s probably no one right decision, just the decision that’s right for your circumstance. In some cases, it makes a lot of sense to develop native applications to run on a device and in many cases it will make sense to use the web for your learning product. I think the research shows that the simplest path for most learning organizations will be web-based applications, but those with a specific device in mind will certainly benefit from leveraging the strengths of on-device deployment.


3 comments so far

  1. […] Enterprise applications can be created as Native or Web based. There is a good post mentioning the difference between them here. […]

  2. mobileben on

    can you tell me why you think Mobl21 is great? I tried to register and for some reason couldn’t do so. But I’m interested in knowing why you think it is a good tool.

  3. http://tinyurl.com/hiphfox18765 on

    “M-Learning Decisions: Web App or Native App?
    m-learning is good” genuinely causes me think a tiny bit extra.
    I loved each and every particular part of it. Thanks a lot ,Elena

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