October 18, 2010, 3:16 PM

Where to begin in m-commerce: a site or an app?

Expert at Mobile Commerce Forum surprisingly says an app.

Lead Photo

I was surprised last week at the Mobile Commerce Forum by a presentation from Bryant Shea, vice president of the innovation group, which covers content management and mobile commerce, at consulting firm Isobar.

Conventional wisdom says when launching a mobile commerce program a retailer should begin with an m-commerce site, not an app, because a site offers greater reach than an app. Anyone with a mobile web browser can access a mobile-optimized site, whereas apps can only be accessed by users of the platforms for which those apps were designed. And the smartphone platform market is rather fragmented.

But Shea bucked conventional wisdom.

“If you’re going to be focused on any area, it’s apps for the iPhone and Android,” Shea said, saying the vast majority of mobile web traffic comes from mobile devices using Apple Inc.’s iOS4 operating system and Google Inc.’s Android operating system. “Why do you want to focus on an app instead of a mobile site? Because the experience is better.”

I wholeheartedly agree that the experience is better on an app. I think most smartphone owners would agree, as well. And I think apps have a very important role to play.

However, mobile web browsing is soaring, and when a smartphone user types in a URL, the expectation is that there will be a site optimized for their device. And the number of people who use their phones as their primary method for accessing the Internet is greatly increasing. This means they’ll be hitting a retailer’s site more often on their smartphone.

As a result of these factors, I think it’s paramount to launch an m-commerce site before a mobile app. Retailers have to be ready for the onslaught of mobile web users. Once they have a mobile site in place, then retailers can create the super-rich experience of an app. (Though I should add that with the new mark-up language HTML5, retailers can create rich m-commerce site experiences that approach those in mobile apps.)

And don’t forget the problem of discoverability. Consumers have to find your app before they can download it and use it. They need to know it exists. So you have to promote it well. You don’t have to do that with an m-commerce site—people already know your URL.

So I say site, Shea says app. What do you say?

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