Mobile app or responsive website?


Having worked developing consumer websites for several years, I have often heard the phrase “when are we getting a mobile app”.

I was always of the opinion that a mobile responsive website was a higher priority than a mobile app and also that for most businesses, a mobile responsive website is all that’s needed.

First off, even before thinking of a mobile app these days your business website MUST be mobile responsive, end of.  Not least because before downloading an app your customers, or potential customers, are going to research exactly what you do and who you are, and guess what…they’ll likely do that on their mobile device, so before you even spend time thinking about a mobile app, get your website responsive.

Right, so you’ve heeded my advice – why wouldn’t you 🙂 – and your business website is now responsive, well done. Now let’s consider that mobile app that your investors and board REALLY want you to have, the first and foremost question should be, “do we really need an app?”.

In order to answer that question let’s look at the difference between a mobile site and a mobile app.

The mobile site basically renders your businesses website nicely on all mobile devices, mainly driven by the screen size. You can if you wish show different content to mobile browsers than desktop ones, if you really want to, but ask yourself why, before doing it.

A mobile site is an synchronous entity, you open your browser, enter the URL and then interact with the site as you would any website on the desktop. There is generally no necessity to authenticate or receive notifications from it, generally it’s your shop front, people have a look in and see what you do primarily, then they may come in a purchase a product or service from you, depending on what your business offers, and then your customer is gone again, there are ways to bring them back, marketing emails, etc, but generally the customer is in control of the interaction.

If your customers are offline, they can’t see your site or interact with it in any way.

A mobile app on the other hand enables a more lasting relationship with your customers – provided you can get them to install it of course, more on that later.

A mobile app has a better ability to act more asynchronously than a site, by sending notifications to your customers, which anecdotally seem to have a better cut-through with customers than emails.  Again, your customer has to agree to receive notifications. An app has easier access to resources on your customer’s mobile device, be it photos, contacts or location, and again if they allow your app those privileges.

A mobile app has the ability to allow your customers to interact with your app when they’re offline, with the app able to communicate this activity back to your business when they come online again, this in itself may be a major advantage for the app over the site.

If, when you come to design your app, you start to see many similarities with your existing website, then you should start to question if the app is really needed.

Advantages of a responsive site is that your existing front and back end developers can develop it with only slightly longer development time to make the mobile site look and function as you want.

A mobile app is expensive to develop and you probably don’t already have those skills in house.  If you’re spending less than $25K for an app then you’ll probably end up with a disappointing product that may do your business more harm than good. Throw into this the iOS vs Android vs Windows problem, and of course the fact that Android is more complex by the nature of different OS and hardware capabilities and you can have a very expensive product to a) develop in the first place and b) maintain as different hardware and OS versions are released.

So you decide to develop an app, great, once it’s developed though you then have the task of getting your customers to install it. It’s my opinion that this used to be easy, everyone loves apps and people are FAR more likely to install an app than they would be to install something on their desktop – trust me, we’ve tried – but now it seems to me that people are more savvy in what they download to their devices, they likely already have tens, if not, hundred of apps installed and unless your app gives them something they simply can’t live without, chances are they probably won’t download it and even if they do, they probably won’t use it – although you do have the luxury of notifications to prompt them to do so, unless they prevented your app from sending them.

There are solutions available that give you the advantages of an app, notifications for instance, with the re-use of your already developed mobile site, these seem to me to be great alternatives to a dedicated and bespoke app where the functionality can be achieved on your mobile site.

So, in conclusion, for me, unless there is a compelling and necessary reason why you should develop a mobile app – it’s functionality simply cannot be achieved via a mobile site – then don’t do it, invest a little more time and resources on your mobile site and save the expense and headache of developing and maintaining an app.

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The future of web development

Recently I’ve been thinking about the future of web development and how different technologies fit in.

Of course there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution but the more I contemplate this the more I am convinced that front and back end development will diverge.

Taking the experience I’ve had whilst at the Start Here group – moving from a website to a platform used to host several properties on a common back-end, the more I see this as the future of web development. Back-end developers doing what they do best, the business rules implementation and front-end developers doing what they do best, perfecting the user experience.

I predict that businesses will increasingly produce APIs supporting the business logic and leaving the front-end to another team or business altogether.

I believe this move to be driven primarily by the myriad of user facing interfaces now available, at the very least desktop browsers vs. mobile browsers, but also the proliferation of mobile and soon maybe wearable apps.  The front-end and back-end are becoming more divergent than ever.

The proliferation of MVC frameworks are already promoting the separation of the model and controller from the view and perhaps a more physical separation is the natural step considering the dedicated front-end technologies that are around now, like Angular.js.

Considering a new business idea, rather than developing a full front-to-back solution I am seriously considering producing a RESTful API in node.js focusing on the core functionality and speed in delivering that and then outsourcing the website – desktop and mobile and mobile app development to experts in their field.  Perhaps even only providing the API as the final product and pushing other businesses into producing user interfaces to utilise this. This approach enables me to consider more carefully the back-end functionality without any compromise due to front-end restrictions or distractions. I can produce the pure business logic and then let expert UI developers do the fancy part.

By becoming a back-end API provider if you like, it’s possible that more innovative ways of using the back-end will eventuate as more businesses focus solely on the user interfaces and API integration.

The dream perhaps is that the back-end logic is broken down into a series of APIs that the front-end simply plugs into and uses as required, so web development as it is today becomes more of a system integration activity, plugging front-end and various back-end APIs together to create the required end product.

Of course the interface definition will be critical and up until now this type of specification probably wasn’t much of a concern to web developers, but as web development matures I feel that the formalisation of these interface specs will become the norm as it is in more mature software engineering disciplines.

I think that by separating front and back end development it will create a more innovative overall solution without the front-end having preconceived ideas of the back-end and vice versa.

Who knows if this will become reality but we’re sure to see new approaches to old ideas almost constantly, these are truly exciting times to be involved in all aspects of digital.


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iPhone 4 to Motorola Moto G2

So I’ve had my iPhone 4 (not even a 4S, just a 4) for probably 4 years now, pretty happy with it even though I couldn’t get iOS8 and had noticed it slowing down in recent months, but it’s served me well.

For a few weeks prior when I was in a phone conversation with someone they’d say “you’re so quiet, I can hardly hear you”, so I’d switch to speaker phone and all was good. But it turns out this was the microphone dying and finally the week before last it gave up.

I’m sure you’ve heard these stories of someone taking their flooded, smashed, generally broken iPhones to the Apple Store and getting a brand new one for free, so thought I’d give it a try.  It didn’t work!  I found getting a Genius appointment tedious and had to do it twice due to an initial miscommunication of the day. The Apple “Genuis” told me that it was definitely a hardware problem and in the 4 the microphone is soldered to the main board, so long and short of it “it’s dead”, no free iPhone offered to me though 🙁 I could get a new (would it really be new) 4 for $180, and even the Genius remarked “you probably wouldn’t want to do that as you don’t get any iOS updates anymore”, go on a plan, the Genius’s preferred option, although it’s easy for him to want me locked into a 2 year contract paying an extra $30/month to get the same data as I’m getting now on my old old Telstra plan, or buy a new phone from the shop, but probably not even getting $100 for my trade in 4.

I wasn’t happy, I declined all three options and left, disappointed not least that Apple wasn’t as amazing at customer service as I thought.

As a side note, I’d never been into an Apple store before (I’m no fan boi, but have always regarded their products as well engineered and their software on the devices themselves (don’t get me started on iTunes on Windows) as perfectly adequate), so the whole store thing was an eye opener, man they get some people through that place, virtually every square metre of the Robina store had a customer in it and almost as many staff, they must be making a few bob 😉

So now I had an iPhone that I couldn’t really call anyone on, so I had to make a difficult decision, spend upwards of $800 on an iPhone 6 – which I really wanted to do but knew that my wife would NOT have been impressed OR go over to the dark side and buy an Android phone!

As a developer I guess I should support the “new kids on the block” of course which aren’t that new any more and have more market share than Apple these days, but to be honest I’ve just never really liked the whole “every phone’s operating system is slightly different”, “manufactures pepper their version of Android with different “bloatware””, “you can’t get OS upgrades if you’ve got this model on this network”, “some apps won’t work on some models”, “apps from the Google Play store having security risks”, etc, it just feels like Linux vs. Windows, on Windows everything just works, on Linux this works on that distribution and that works on that distribution, it just feels amateurish.  And I’ve never been impressed with the hardware, the Galaxy range has always felt plasticy and just not a nice as iPhones.

In preparation for disappointment at the Apple store (I’m a pessimist at heart) I’d started to research a likely “budget” replacement, and when you mention “budget” you can’t really look at iPhones, so I’d been researching Nokia Lumia 530 (my wife had just replaced her 520 that had a smashed screen (they wanted $100 to replace at the local shop where it only cost me $69 to get my 4’s screen replaced previously) with a $40 Telstra locked 530) as I’d set it up for my wife and didn’t hate it and at $40 that definitely ticks the “budget” box, but I doubted there’d be the range of apps I need to go about everyday business stuff so I started looking at Androids.

I get the OzBargain deal email every morning and saw the Motorola Moto G 2nd generation was on sale at Disk Smiths for $249, so I started to do some research into it, and it soon became apparent that this could be the phone I needed.  As it happens I have a UK SIM that I occasionally get calls and messages on and so the fact that the G2 was a dual SIM piqued my attention initially and then I started to read lots and lots of good reviews about them, it’s only 3G which seemed to be the main gripe, but so was my iPhone 4 and internet speed on the Telstra network had never been an issue.  Coupled with the fact that the sale ended on the same day of my “Genuis” appointment meant that I ended up walking out of the Apple Store and straight into Dick Smiths to get the G2.

So I’ve been using it for over a week now and I have to say – I LIKE IT! I wasn’t a fan of the phablet phones and with a 5 inch screen this is more phablet than I thought I’d like, but the bigger screen real estate really helps when reading and using websites that aren’t mobile friendly and in fact I’ve even used phpMyAdmin on our live web server via it, something I would’ve never considered on the iPhone 4 simply due to the size of the screen.

It’s quick, certainly compared to my iPhone 4 and has all of the productivity apps that I need and as some of them are from Google they just seem easier to set up on the G2.  Occasionally I find that an app will hang, but I just kill it and start again. Occasionally the keyboard will disappear while typing, so again I just kill the app and start again.  The dual SIM thing works as expected, you get a call on one SIM, you can answer it, you get a call on the other SIM, you can answer it. Each time you make a call or send a text you can choose which SIM to use, and save that preference, plus there is the ability to easily change that preference. Call quality (certainly from my end) is excellent. Data speeds are the same as on the 4, although with the apps loading faster anyway everything just feels faster.

Would like to get the Lollipop (I do think these names are silly) OS upgrade as I do miss the lock screen notifications – something I find difficult to believe hasn’t been available on Android!

I like the message light that appears to stay on longer the more alerts that are waiting – although I’m not too sure about that yet, so you don’t have to keep turning it on to see if there are any new alerts (emails, messages, calls, etc).

I am stuck in iMessage purgatory at the moment due to the prefered Apple solution to get out of it not working, so basically anyone who texts me via an iPhone will not get a response because it’s picked up by one of the many other devices registered against my iTunes account and not sent as a text to my phone.  I still need to try the secondary method advised by Apple but really the preferred method should just work in my opinion.

One thing that needs to be made MUCH easier is transferring data across platforms, contacts, photos, messages, email settings and apps, not as bad moving from iOS to Android but a pain moving from iOS to Windows phone and even Windows phone to Windows phone! Ideally a universal cloud storage solution would be preferable – maybe a business idea! I don’t really use any media on my phone and so don’t know about any hassle of moving music or video across platforms but I’d image that’d be pretty simple.

I’m not sure about battery life as yet as I’ve been using it a lot more than my iPhone during the day simply because it’s more pleasant to browse with and so at the moment the battery rarely lasts the day.

I travel fairly often and until know I used to take my Google Asus Nexus 7 (I think that’s what it’s called) (I did go Android a while ago with that) to watch the Virgin Entertainment content on the plane, but I think with the G2’s 5 inch screen I’ll probably leave the Nexus at home next time = lighter bag 🙂

So, do I miss my iPhone? I can honestly say to this point I don’t, so maybe it’s time everyone gave Android (at least in the form of the Moto G2) a go to see what you could be missing!

Posted in Blog

What’s been happening?

Well it’s been a while, over a year since my last post and a lot has happened in that year.

I finally took the leap into a full-time real startup –

I’d been working on StartHere’s predecessor since 2005, but with the injection of some seed funding and partnering with a seasoned entrepreneur, we finally made a real business of the venture.

In the 12-or-so months since starting full-time on StartHere we’ve made some pretty impressive progress, totally redesigning and rebuilding the back end web application and the user interface, changing the business model and engaging a CEO to drive the business.  We now have close to 100,000 members and have generated $10m in sales and given back over $500,000 in cashback. We also have a full-time customer engagement expert on board as well as several off-shore assistants and have recently secured more funding so things are looking very good.

There’s been a lot – and I mean a lot – of hard work over the last 12 months, and I’m still working at the very least 70 hours a week. I’ve managed to take 2 whole days off during that time but it really has been exciting and terrifying and satisfying and frustrating – everything a start up should be I guess.

I have learnt so much over this time and feel much more comfortable with the uncertainty of a startup than I did 13 months ago.

Where this particular journey will end up – who knows – but I do know we have a great team and lots of potential to grow this business to 1m members possibly within the next 12 months with some smart partnerships that are in the pipeline.

As things settle down a little bit I am really hoping to write more about the day-to-day challenges that face a technical founder, so look out for more posts soon!

Until next time, Steve.


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Finally a little time to work on the site

I’ve finally had a few minutes to add some content to this website, with the many other projects currently ongoing getting those few minutes has been harder than I realised.

After installing WordPress on the site on the 9th January this is the first time I’ve had to add a little content.  Hopefully more to come in the near future.

Now to find a nice theme and add some pictures…

Would love to hear of any interesting projects coming up.

Thanks, Steve.

Posted in Blog