Mobile Flight Booking: Native App vs. Mobile Website

The face-off has officially begun. Concur announced last week that it will unveil mobile flight booking capability for its mobile travel and expense tool. It's a first in the industry in that the functionality is offered via device-specific native apps—and Concur has covered the bases, rolling out apps for Android, Blackberry, iPhone and iPad environments. Other providers introduced in-policy flight booking capability earlier this year, but built on an HTML5 mobile website platform. Which will prove more functional for real-world road warriors? One thing's for sure—it's going to be a battle.

Booking flights via mobile devices has proved a logistical challenge for technology providers in the managed travel space. Figuring out how to embed policy, preferred supplier bias and negotiated rates into a mobile tool that is easy to use and, perhaps more challenging, easy to display on a small screen size has been a significant hurdle. While providers continuously alluded to the potential for in-policy mobile flight booking last year, 2011 has seen a couple of significant rollouts.

Concur's mobile booking tool will provide comprehensive travel policy configuration for air, apply preferred supplier display bias and ensure negotiated rates are applied to each booking. Travelers will be able to create new bookings or alter existing itineraries on the fly—a critical need when faced with travel disruptions en route and one of the major drivers of developing mobile air booking functionality for managed travelers in the first place.

Yet, announcements about mobile managed travel websites earlier this year claim very similar policy-related functionality for air bookings, with access to trip itineraries and sharing capabilities, access to travel alerts and flight status updates. So what will make the difference as the two approaches to mobile travel booking go head to head? For my money, it's got to be user experience. Without having seen both technologies in a match-up, and based solely on my knowledge of native apps vs. mobile websites overall, my instincts say the edge in this contest may go to Concur, at least for the moment. Two reasons:

  1. Interface and display. Because they are designed to work in specific operating systems, native apps tend to have tighter interfaces and slicker display capabilities. This is a critical component of any mobile travel management tool, but specifically for air booking, as display challenges have been much-discussed in the managed travel space.
  1. Ability to integrate with expense. Road warriors have already taken a shine to mobile expense reporting. The ability to provide an integrated end-to-end mobile travel and expense tool that includes air booking is a differentiator.

That said, the potential of mobile websites to close the gap in the area of user experience is undeniable. While the market may well be native app-centric right now, the move to HTML5 and CSS3 mobile websites is on the rise, thanks to the ability to code one site that will function for a variety web-enabled mobile devices. Hardware advances (bigger screens, better features) will facilitate this migration to mobile web, as well.

Bottom line: The managed travel space can look forward to an ongoing rivalry for mobile travel and expense providers, whether focused on native apps or mobile web. The result will be better technology for all.


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