Every startup wants to have a presence on mobile today. But the question is does our service really need a mobile app? Even if we write one, would it be a “good to have” or a necessity? What mobile approach do you think would be best for your startup? Mobile-only, mobile-friendly or mobile-first?

I’ve begun this writeup, with a little background on how mobile devices gradually, over the years captured the market by having maximum penetration, beating the desktops with better user retention and engagement. If you wish to directly jump to the strategies part skip the first two paragraphs and jump right to the “Before you design your mobile app” paragraph.

So, without further ado. Let’s get on with it.


The Arrival Of Handheld Devices

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, if I say that, today mobile devices have the maximum market penetration, globally. Approx. 60 to 70% of the users in this day and age are accessing online services through their mobile devices as opposed to accessing them via their laptops or desktops.

And this technology shift is for the obvious reasons: accessibility & the ease of use of mobile devices. We can carry our mobile phones anywhere with us, be it when hanging out with our friends or when at our office cubicles. Also, we don’t have to be tech-savvy to know how to operate a handheld device. My mother, who has never operated a computer, runs google searches through voice commands on her android device, without requiring any sort of assistance. This is how simple and intuitive the user interface of handheld devices is.

Engineers have done an impeccable job in making the user interfaces as intuitive as possible making the onboarding of the new users smooth. The mass adoption of handheld devices has totally changed the technology landscape. It has provided a way for non-tech-savvy users to enter into the online universe. It’s a totally different ball game. Businesses are going from web-first to mobile-first. There was a time when just nerds used to play computer games, today everyone is playing Candy Crush, PubG, Fortnite on their mobile devices.


The Transition From Desktop To Mobile

I’ve always been an avid gamer, love to play games on all the platforms, be it web, console or the desktop. Back in the day, this is around 2010, I got introduced to casual gaming via Facebook social games like Farmville & many more. These games have a freemium business model, these are free to play with in-game purchases & were popularized by companies like Zynga in conjunction with social networks like Facebook. Farmville is one popular product of Zynga, that had a major contribution in putting the company on NASDAQ.

I got pretty hooked; these casual games became my thing. I often switched between my work tab & the game tab throughout the day on my laptop. This kind of kept me going for a longer period of time without getting bored or burnt out.

Online multiplayer social gaming was a new thing then & it became a major source of earning for Facebook. Every now and then there was a new exciting game on the Facebook app store. Just Zynga alone contributed to 15 – 20% of Facebook’s total earning.

Gradually over time, smartphones started getting popular. They had a significant improvement in hardware. They were loaded with more features, cool cameras, better memory and whatnot. As their popularity rose, & they became a household thing, this changed the whole online gaming landscape. Almost all of the games transitioned to mobile devices, as the gaming companies observed better user retention and engagement rate via the mobile versions of their games. There were more MAU (Monthly Active Users) & DAU (Daily Active Users) after the gaming studios introduced mobile clients for their games.

As the mobile engagement was increasing the web engagement was decreasing. Many businesses decided to focus just on the mobile. Clash Of Clans is a good example of this.

Today, there are hardly any games, besides the instant messenger games, you can find on Facebook. Several have gone mobile-only. The Facebook game store feels like a deserted place & the social network is focusing more on ads, business pages & Facebook groups to make profits. And this technology shift is not just for the gaming segment, this is happening for arguably every business niche.

Mobile devices today bring-in the majority of the traffic for businesses. There are mobile-only businesses with billions of users like Instagram, TikTok, Pokemon Go & so on. Google Play Store has over 2 billion monthly active users and has over 3.5 million apps, 82 billion app downloads as of today.

Now if you are wondering what do these terms like mobile-only, mobile-first, mobile-friendly really mean? How important are they in the application development space? Let’s find out, up next.

This write-up is an excerpt from my web application & software architecture 101 course. If you want a thorough, right from the basics, insight into web architecture, picking the right technology stack, technology trade-offs involved when designing web applications.  If you have a startup idea & are asking yourself, how do I implement my app? What technologies do I use? Where do I start? This course will help you kickstart your entrepreneurial journey. Read more about the course here


Before You Design Your Mobile App

If you are in the initial planning & design phase of your service or already have a web-based service up and running & are wondering whether you should have a mobile app for your service. It’s always a good idea to do a thorough market research in your niche before you get down to writing a mobile app for your service.

I know I just said that mobile devices have the market penetration & are bringing-in the majority of the traffic & all, but there is no one size fits all strategy for approaching the market for businesses. One quick example I would want to give you here is I own a technology website & almost 80% of my visitors are from the desktop. My business does not have a mobile app & it’s doing just fine.

So, there are several things to consider before we are in a position to take this decision – if we really need an app for our business. Yeah!! it may be a “good to have” but is it a necessity? As writing a mobile app has significant costs associated with it to the point you may have to set up a dedicated mobile team for your business.

If you are feeling courageous & thinking of writing a mobile app all by yourself let me tell you this, it has a steep learning curve. And saying with experience, you will start with a feeling like “well, I know the backend development. How tricky would writing a mobile app be?” & along the way, you would be like “Oh man!! I never thought getting my business on mobile would involve so much work. Will this ever end?”.

Hand-held devices are battery-powered; the resources (CPU, Storage, RAM, Data) & user’s patience are limited. It requires a completely different approach when writing mobile apps as opposed to when writing web applications that would run on the cloud. Big guns like Facebook, Instagram & others do a lot of R&D & strategizing when developing their apps.

Now let’s be clear on terms like mobile-only, mobile-first, mobile-friendly. What do they really mean?


Mobile Only

Mobile-only means that the business operates just via mobile. It may have a mobile website or an app on the play store or both. Generally, it’s the apps that the businesses move forward with when going mobile-only & that drives the majority of the traffic.

Mobile websites run on mobile browsers and are primarily built for engaging traffic coming in from the google search. And then from there, the users are routed to the respective apps. TikTok, Pokemon Go are examples of mobile-only businesses.


Mobile First

Mobile-first means the user interface of the service is designed with an idea that the majority of the users of the business will use its services via its mobile client. The desktop-based website interface is secondary. The mobile interface is the interface that a business would want to show to its customers first as opposed to showing its desktop interface.

A mobile-first website will contain everything that a user would need to fully experience a service and to interact with all of its features. In case of a mobile-first approach, it’s possible for the desktop interface to contain fewer features.

When the designers start to design the interface, they would first design the mobile interface and then based on that, interfaces for other platforms like desktop, tablet etc. would be built. In a mobile-first approach, a business typically goes to the market with an app or a browser-based mobile website.

Myntra.com, India’s leading online fashion retail business is a good example of this. It started with both a desktop website and a mobile app. Majority of the revenue was being generated from the mobile app over 70% with over 90% traffic. So, it started focussing more on the mobile app and eventually killed its desktop website.

But over the time because of the customer demand, that the business should be on both the platforms, Myntra re-opened its desktop website but is still a mobile-first business.


Mobile-Friendly – Responsive

Mobile-friendly as the name implies are websites that are friendly for mobile but are originally built to render on desktop browsers. They are popularly known as responsive websites. They have a grid-based design & adapt themselves based on the screen size of the device. We can also call these websites as web-first or desktop-first.

Generally, a responsive web page is divided into rows and columns containing grids. And as the screen size gets smaller those grids re-arrange themselves based on the screen size.

So, with this approach, we don’t have to do anything extra for mobile. Just develop a desktop-based responsive website and it will automatically render for all the screen sizes.

Responsive user interface grid design

This may sound convenient but there is a little hitch. We may not have 100% control over how the responsive website renders on different devices. Some elements of the page may get hidden or may not render in a way that we would like. To tackle this, we can write CSS-media queries but still, it won’t be as good as a mobile-first built website. This is why businesses prefer to go ahead with the mobile-first strategy if the majority of the traffic comes-in from the mobile.


What Approach Should You Choose For Your Business?

When picking on the right strategy to approach the market, we need to inform ourselves well on things like:

  • How are the users of the existing businesses, if there are any, in the same niche, accessing their websites?
  • Do these businesses have an app on the popular app stores or are they operating just via their websites? If they have an app, how many downloads do they have? What are their primary traffic & social discovery (how users find the service) sources?
  • What is the revenue generation platform wise? Sometimes it’s hard to get that kind of info if the business doesn’t declare it publicly. However, we can look into the traffic on their app and the website and kind of assume (though it’s not always true) that the platform getting the maximum traffic will generate most of the revenue. For all this business analytics information there are a plethora of freemium tools with browser extensions and services available online. Just Google.

Besides these key points, the type of service being offered to the users plays a decisive role in creating a strategy for approaching the market. It makes it really easy to figure out if we need to move ahead with or without a mobile app. For instance, let’s say, we intend to bootstrap a service in the health niche, a service that would enable the users to track their eating habits, also suggest them of the healthy alternatives available. The service would also have some of the social features for user engagement & retention.

What do you think would be the best strategy to approach the market in this use case? Do we need a mobile app? Or just a web-based website would suffice?

To track the meals throughout the day, it would be inconvenient for the user to open his laptop or rush to his desktop everytime he wants to input or check the calories of the food he just ate. On the other hand, if we offer the end user all the services via an app that he could install on his mobile, he can easily track all the meals throughout the day anywhere he enjoys his meals be it at the home, the office cafeteria or when stuck in traffic. It’s an obvious fact that a mobile-first approach will work best for our use case.

We can also have a web-based interface, it would be a good to have, though not a necessity in the initial stages of starting up. Also, from a technical standpoint, there are technology offerings like Firebase that enable us to write an app without investing too much time in setting up the backend infrastructure. More on that in the upcoming lessons.


Real-Life Examples

Myntra.com was making 30% of the revenue from its desktop site still they took the decision to ditch the web version of the business for the mobile version. The reason being dedicated platform teams have costs. Focusing on a single platform is both peaceful & economical at the same time.

Speaking of my technology website, the maximum visitors, almost 80%, are from the desktop. Here is the Google analytics image for the traffic on my website.

Google Analytics agent type

So, naturally, a mobile-first approach isn’t for me. A mobile-friendly approach is ideal for my use case hence my website has a responsive user interface. However, say if I was selling something on my website & most of the sales would be happening via the mobile client regardless of the fact that the maximum traffic was coming in from the desktop. I may have to think about writing a mobile app for my business, for one simple reason, money. It would then make perfect sense for me to have a strong presence on both the platforms.

Here is one more example with regards to this.

Pixel Federation, a browser & app-based gaming company based out of Slovakia, launched a game called Seaport in 2015. The team started with the desktop browser version of the game integrated with Facebook, that’s how I discovered the game. In 2017 they launched an app that got over 8.1 Million downloads.

The app launch helped the game earn over 7.6 Million €. The game has approx. 305K Daily active users & out of them only 50K are desktop users but those 50K users bring in almost one-third of the game revenue.

So, I think you got the point. Research in your niche is important before you start writing any sort of code. With this being said, we’ve reached the end of the writeup. If you liked the article, do share it with your folks. Consider following 8bitmen on Twitter,     Facebook,          LinkedIn to stay notified of the new content published.

I am Shivang, the author of this writeup. You can read more about me here.


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