Mobile App Standoff: Web App vs. Native App

For resources-strapped companies that want to get in the mobile app game, a Web app tuned for smartphones and tablets is a wise choice. Just ask Texas insurance provider ANICO.

Think mobile app, and what do you see?

Executives tapping native apps bursting with functionality on iPhones and Android smartphones. Field salespeople showing off beautifully rendered iPad PowerPoint or Pages slides to impressed customers. Pretty heady stuff for some companies.

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But other companies just don't have the resources to launch mobile BYOD this way.

For them, there isn't enough money to hire mobile app development teams for all the different platforms. Mobile device management, enterprise app stores, and mobile security specialists consume resources, too. There's the long and expensive mobile app development lifecycle, which can stretch for months.

American National Insurance Company (ANICO) of Galveston, Texas, was one of those companies that needed to find a cheaper way.

With some 50,000 independent agents and 1,200 employed agents selling its services in the field, ANICO knew it had to arm its workers with an app that could bring customer information to their mobile devices. Feature-rich native apps for all the major platforms were out of the question. Then the small IT staff hit upon a more realistic option: a mobile Web app.

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With the help of IBM software and solutions provider Streebo, ANICO developed a basic mobile Web app that field agents could access via a Web browser on practically any mobile device. The Web apps singular functionality serves up customer information rightly sized for different mobile screen sizes, such as the iPhone and iPad.

It took only eight weeks to develop the mobile Web app.

"We don't have the resources to develop native apps, it's a lot harder to maintain," says Deanna Walton, assistant vice president responsible for field systems at ANICO. She adds, "a mobile Web app is more attractive because you dont have those security concerns."

ANICO launched the mobile Web app in early February with little marketing fanfare. The idea was to roll this out slowly. On the first day, 100 agents signed up. At the following agent conference, agents quickly asked for more functionality. Recently, 200 agents accessed the system in a single day.

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Deanna Walton, AVP Field Systems

Walton and her team are working on bringing more functionality to the mobile Web app. Agents will be able to get quotes and pending case-status information over the mobile Web app. Just last week, Walton was in a team meeting discussing the possibility of pushing rate sheets over the mobile Web app.

However, agents probably wont be able to sync calendars and contacts or use the camera on their mobile devices mobile Web apps just don't play well with a mobile devices native resources. That's one of the trade-offs with a mobile Web app compared to a native app.

Truth is, giving salespeople a taste of mobile BYOD empowerment often leads to them wanting more and varied functionality quickly. Walton contends that the mobile Web app approach arms ANICO with information for future mobile app strategy and development.

Case-in-point: In the past, ANICO's IT department didnt know what devices independent field agents were using. Now ANICO knows agents predominately use iPhones followed by Androids and iPads, based on logs and metrics gleaned whenever devices connect to the mobile site.

Knowing what devices are being used means Walton can direct limited development resources to those specific platforms. She can also get a feel for what the fallout may be by not directing resources at other platforms.

Walton can also direct resources at functionality that agents want. "As we start pushing more capability out there, we'll see more requests come in," she says. "That's good because then we can give them the capabilities that they actually want."

By the end of the year, Walton expects 50 percent of employed agents using the site regularly. Its too early to tell what direction ANICO will take in its mobile strategy, but one thing is for certain: Mobility will be a big part of the discussion in almost everything IT does, she says.

"Down the road, I can see us possibly writing a hybrid or native app," Walton says. "Going from mobile Web app to native or hybrid, we can leverage the code we have today. Weve prototyped what a native app might look like."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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