Building Cross-Platform Mobile Apps – When to Build a Native App

Macadamian Technologies | March 15, 2011 | 4 Min Read

Sometimes, a native application is the best choice for your mobile app.

Companies developing applications for the smartphone market often ask us whether it’s better to create a native application using platform-specific tools, or a web application using modern web technologies. In our experience, the answer depends on the platform, availability and distribution requirements of the app in question.

In this, the second of five articles in our Mobile Cross-Platform Series, we’ll examine the advantages that native platform brings to the cross-platform dilemma. To do this, we’ll look at WebMD and examine why, in our opinion, WebMD made the right choice in building a native application for its WebMD portal.

WebMD: A Popular Native Application

WebMD started out as an online portal in 2005, and has quickly become a major resource for a variety of web-based health information. It has since released native applications for the iOS and Android platforms to aid patients and healthcare professionals in the mobile space. Was this a good decision based on the needs of WebMD users? We believe so, due to the platform, availability and distribution needs of the product.

Platform Requirements

To decide the best platform for the WebMD portal, one needs to begin by asking whether a product like WebMD really needs to be available on every possible mobile platform. At first blush, it might appear that all applications should strive to meet this goal, but it is rarely as necessary as it seems. In reality, only products or services that are meant to be completely ubiquitous – such as Gmail and Twitter – need to be available on every mobile platform so that they do not alienate a large number of users by not serving all platforms equally. WebMD is not in this position.

Unlike Google Mail, which we explored in the previous post in this series, the mobile version of WebMD does not require frequent updates. Since the application consists of cloud-based requests and static content, changes will be limited to new feature additions and bug fixes. While this will obviously require users to download the occasional update, the pace at which updates are required fits well within the acceptable boundaries of the average App Store denizen.

One particularly interesting way in which WebMD benefits from being a native application is that fact that it interacts with other native applications:

  • Links to external web content found within the application can be opened in a browser, emailed, or copied to the device’s clipboard.
  • Location data is used to find nearby physicians and facilities, and when a phone number is found it may be called directly by the phone or added to the device’s contact list.

Availability Requirements

One major motivation for a native client is offline behavior. An application that can work without an internet connection provides a strong rationale for choosing a mobile native client over a mobile web version. In the case of WebMD, first-aid information is loaded onto the device and, as such, is available when an internet connection is not. This was a smart choice, as the value of this information is the same whether the device is online or offline.

Distribution Requirements

It’s reasonable to assume that App Store distribution is the correct model for WebMD’s mobile product because the App Store distribution provides WebMD with a differentiator in a noisy industry and WebMD is able to gain exposure through App Store searches.

The healthcare industry is a very competitive space and there are many different companies peddling information and vying for attention. The novelty and marketability of an iPhone/Android app can help WebMD set itself apart from its competitors and offer a unique value proposition.

Moreover, being listed in the App Store for various platforms offers additional exposure to the WebMD product. As of late 2010, the iPhone version of WebMD was listed on the front page of search results for “healthcare.” This could easily lead to a number of new WebMD users, and, at the very least, increase awareness of the WebMD brand.

We need to ask, however, whether WebMD could have hosted its own mobile-optimized web application. While this is also speculative, the answer is probably “yes.” WebMD’s website had scaled to over 17 million average monthly unique visitors as far back as 2007 , and this number is likely even larger today. It’s plausible that WebMD could have hosted its own mobile-optimized content directly from its existing web outlet, so this offers an argument in favor of a web application.

Final Verdict

We believe that WebMD made the correct decision when creating a native application for its mobile offering. The bonuses offered by a native application—such as offline usage and App Store marketing potential—are advantages that simply could not be matched through a browser.

In our next blog post, we’ll examine the benefits, similarities, and drawbacks of both web and native applications to help you make informed and successful mobile strategy decisions.

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