At Lean Back 2.0, a tablet blog hosted by The Economist, Matt Kendall recently posted that "Apps nudge ahead of websites for smartphone reading". Kendall cites the results of a recent comScore survey, in which 51.1% of those responding said they used apps for content consumption, compared with 49.8% who used browsers.
Although the edge for apps is thin, Kendall uses the data to claim:
"There certainly seems to be something in the idea that users want to access clear and engaging content from apps, perhaps at the expense of website equivalents that take longer to load, have a greater degree of clutter (mostly advertising) or links to other stories/websites that are not necessarily desired."
Slow down, Matt. Let's at least make the comparison apples-to-apples.
As I noted in January (before we implemented a mobile redesign for this site), a very high percentage of the world's web sites are not yet optimized for mobile content consumption. Mobile browsers accessing non-mobile content yield poor user experiences.
Well-designed apps (of the sort Kendall favors) cut through this problem by either accessing a parallel data set (not the best information architecture) or by overriding the style and presentation decisions made for the primary website. Of course, if a site had been designed for mobile, those presentation decisions would have already been optimized for the device in hand.
As well, content apps are typically hybrid enterprises: a skin that sits on a desktop, working in tandem with web-based content pulled from a mobile site. The simplest apps are effectively dedicated browsers.
That's a reasonable strategy for publishers who want to reserve mobile real estate, but the same user experience result could be obtained by designing with mobile in mind.
Much as print versus digital is "either-and", apps versus mobile is a false debate. If you compete by offering unique platform functionality, build an app. If you want to make content readily available across mobile platforms, plan for it.