3 Things to Consider When Choosing Between Mobile vs. Web PM Gigs

Yee Chen
Yee Chen
Jan 20, 2016 · 5 min read

An age-old debate that will fundamentally change your (work) life

As an aspiring product manager, you might not know the difference between being a mobile vs. web PM — I certainly didn’t when I started the job. While both products are identical in that they are consumed on mobile phones (seriously, it’s all converging on mobile), the difference lies in their development, design philosophy, and distribution.

Mobile = Native = Download & install

Web = Hosted = Visit Site on Mobile & Desktop

Although mobile vs. web is a subtle difference on paper, it’ll fundamentally change the way you approach your work. Here are 3 factors to help you decide your next move.

Batch vs. Continuous Development

Because web apps are not installed on local clients and compatibility is a thing of the past (more or less), it’s not unusual for a web team to deliver product updates on a daily/weekly basis. Such is the privilege and challenge of working on a web team — test and iterate as fast as you can, but be ready 24/7 to fix and deliver.

Mobile (especially on iOS) is quite the opposite, where release cycles are often planned around Apple’s notorious 1 week review process. When managing both iOS and Android apps, engineering and QA teams have to develop for compatibility across different OS and devices. Want to build for tablet? Add another week of QA and dev time.

What this means

Web: Be ready and flexible on deliverables, because the expectation is to deliver ASAP

Mobile: Have a solid vision for where you want to take your mobile product, because retroactive change is slow and hard

Personal vs. Functional

For a long time, paying with Paypal on the web meant digging through your contacts and hoping that you’ve got the right info — Screencap from Lifehacker

Web apps originated on the desktop and focused primarily on solving specific problems within the browser. For a long time, desktop web apps were purely functional and transactional.

  • Need directions? Check Google Maps.
  • Paying someone? Use Paypal.

As people started taking their devices on the go, native mobile apps evolved not only to solve similar problems as the web app, but also added extra layers of context. This is possible as we provide more permissions than ever to mobile app developers — including push notifications, contacts, and location. The mobile app has gotten much more personal and we are no longer using them to solve a single problem.

  • Need directions and know what other people have seen on the road? Check Waze.
  • Paying someone and check out funny exchanges between your friends? Use Venmo.
With Waze, an additional layer of social meant better, real time data — and a better navigation system

While Google Maps and Paypal have become native since their introduction, these are desktop-first products at their cores. Google Maps Street View was not introduced on mobile until 2012. On the Paypal native app, I struggled to find an easier way to send money to friends via phone contacts. When deciding on the mobile vs. web PM position, keep in mind whether the product is a desktop-first or mobile-first product — it’ll drive much of the product roadmap and where the cutting-edge features will be built first.

What this means

Web: Expect more development around core feature set given that the product will be catered for both mobile and desktop web, with snippets of personalization

Mobile: There will continue to be more innovation on contextual and personalization tech to engage users and stay top-of-mind, with aggressive optimizations on push notifications

Centralized vs. Fragmented Distribution

A quick sketch of your industry value chain will tell you that the kingpins are Apple and Google in the app ecosystem — no one else quite holds the same power in the States (China is a different story)

If you’re an iOS developer and your app is not approved by Apple, you’re dead in the water. It’s no secret that Apple and Google controll the entire app ecosystem value chain (at least in the US), and these two partners can be your biggest allies or enemies. A simple featuring on any of the app stores can drive hundreds of thousands of installs — translating to millions of dollars in value. Who wouldn’t want Apple or Google on their side?

While partnership management is critical in both mobile and web, the breadth of coverage on web is much more challenging. Distribution plays a fundamental difference on mobile, and less so on web..

What this means

Web: Growth highly dependent on social viral channels and word of mouth

Mobile: Working with Apple and Google on distribution and app featuring (if you have leverage), with growth also dependent on social viral channels — in addition to organic growth via app store discovery

While devices may all be converging on mobile, it’s still unclear whether native has won out against mobile web (in fact, I see a future where the two can coexist peacefully, but that’s a separate topic). The good news is that you can’t go wrong either way — especially as smartphone distribution continues to grow. The bad news is that you’ll have to decide the path lifestyle that fits your personal stack rank — analysis paralysis!

Craving a faster-paced environment? Web may fit the bill. Curious about user engagement and staying top-of-mind? Mobile has all the tools for you to achieve your goals. There are still clear opportunities in both web and mobile — each with their own set of advantages and challenges — just know what you’re getting yourself into.

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The Lookout

Product insights and analyses; perspectives on product…

The Lookout

Product insights and analyses; perspectives on product management

Yee Chen

Written by

Yee Chen

perpetually dreaming. always curious. mba @michiganross, pm @reddit. noodle and steak lover. former: @zynga | @girlswhocode

The Lookout

Product insights and analyses; perspectives on product management