What Is An App?
April 6, 2012
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I was presenting a webinar on the intersection of mobile and social with my colleague Jeremiah earlier this week, when, in the Q/A an interesting question arose, amidst the other tactical queries about partners, data points and development philosophy, this question stood out because of it’s seeming simplicity and inherent complexity:
What is an “app” and how do you define it?
My snarky side wanted to offer up, “how much time do you have,” but it bears exploring, so I did so on the call and wanted to also start the conversation here.
Increasingly the definition of “apps” in the mobile space is blurring. As mobile advertising takes on more complex capabilities, HTML5-based tools allow websites to offer richer functionality and the overall approach to budgeting, staffing and building native apps changes in businesses, I think the question of “what’s an app?” comes down to functionality more than architecture. I propose the following sniff test for whether something your are building is an app or not, independent of the tools used to build it.
- Does it provide user-centric content? Taking a step beyond the “brochureware” definition of the Web 2.0 era, HTML content, mobile native tools or mobile marketing materials have to provide something novel and interactive for the users. Does it let me tie into my social graph? Can I explore products and services and information about each? Does it facilitate me interacting with the brand or entity putting it in market? If yes to any of the above, fair enough to call it an app. IS it a CSS-formatted version of static information from the web with no way for me as a user to interact with it? Sorry, not going to fly – even if you’ve ponied up to build a native version of it.
- Is it capable of using mobile-native information? As development using HTML5 content – often inside of a mobile-native “frame” – allows more interaction with device-native functions like location information, camera or, God forbid, mobile contacts, the line gets blurred between what the app is (just the native frame) and what the content is. I posit that we take the full experience into account and if, in addition to user-centric content the tool is making use of mobile-native information or capabilities, you sir, have an app on your hands.
- Is the information mobile relevant? Turning the fire hose of information that resides within content stores at a marketer or product manager’s disposal can be tempting. The idea of “make sure the mobile users can see it, too” makes sense in theory, but in practice, most mobile site visitors or application users are looking to do some specific things, likely much different from your traditional customer or site visitor. Reviewing the quarterly financials? Likely not something I’m keen to do on my smartphone or even my tablet, the latter offering purpose built tools for such. Find your nearest location? Get product or price information or, as an employee, connect with my colleagues? Absolutely. This third item is not a required criteria, however, it should be used as a design mantra as mobile-centric content and tools are being put together. take a look at Harvard University’s site then peruse m.harvard.edu (from your mobile to get the full effect) quite a different way to present content and highly useful to mobile visitors as a result.