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December 04, 2008

The Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps: An Amazon Case Study

Posted in: Observations

Amazon has a great mobile web site. When people have asked for good examples of iPhone optimized sites it’s easy to direct them to Amazon as a standout example. It’s very well designed. It’s fast. The amount of information and products presented feels appropriate to the small screen and an on-the-go context. The design language of Amazon.com, its parent site, is applied with thoughtful restraint — including the adapted sliding carousels.

So, why bother with a downloadable iPhone app?

Amazon announced yesterday the Amazon iPhone app for download in Apple’s app store. A better question  is: What functionality warrants a downloadable app? And then, Will that functionality drive adoption better than a well designed mobile web site?

Doing what the mobile web can’t

At first glance, the only feature the application offers that the mobile web version does not is “Amazon Remembers”. The feature lets users to take photos with the iPhone camera and store them as items they want Amazon to remember for them. Amazon says they will try to send you a link to a matching product. What Amazon calls an “experimental feature” can hardly be the sole reason they developed this app. (To my surprise, Amazon Remembers correctly identified both items in my office I photographed. I was particularly impressed it found a 501st Legion Trooper Star Wars figure with Collector Coin.)

True to iPhone App standards

While the mobile web version is impressive, the iPhone app just might justify it’s 40 square pixels of real estate on my increasingly crowded home screen. It behaves as you would expect an Apple application to behave, with familiar icons at the bottom. Delete items from a wish list with a now familiar finger-swipe gesture. If I were a regular Amazon shopper, the iPhone version would become a staple as managing my cart and wish-lists is easier. Unlike Safari Mobile which fails to remember usernames and passwords, this application can.

The answer just might be the app store itself

Apple has done a great job creating an ecosystem for iPhone applications. Despite the aging paradigm of the iTunes Music Store (which needs a new name Steve), users are able to browse useful, noteworthy, and most importantly, user-rated applications. The fact is there’s no equivalent for well-designed mobile web sites, no matter how Safari-optimized they are. Amazon’s solid mobile web site will never show up in a hot list of the top 25 iPhone apps.

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