One of the most popular questions we receive when talking to clients is whether or not they need an app to help them expand into the mobile market. Usually, after we speak with them for a while, it becomes clear that all they really need is a mobile website. Mobile websites and apps can look very similar at first glance, and determining which is most suited to your needs depends on a number of factors.
Before you can evaluate the benefits of a mobile website vs. an app, it’s important to understand the key differences between the two. Both apps and mobile websites are accessed on a handheld devices such as smartphones (iPhone, Android, etc.) and tablets.
A mobile website is similar to any other website in that it consists of browser-based HTML pages accessed over the Internet. What distinguishes a mobile website from a standard website is the fact that it is designed for a smaller display and touch-screen interface.
An increasingly popular version of mobile website is the responsive website, a website which “sniffs” the environment on which it is displayed and automatically resizes to display content on any device, be it a desktop, tablet, or smartphone. Responsive design is a flexible and affordable option which allows clients to maintain a single web presence across all devices. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use the term mobile website to indicate both types of website.
Apps are small programs which are downloaded and installed on your mobile device, rather than being displayed within a browser. Users visit device-specific portals such as Apple’s App Store or the Android Market to download apps. The app may pull content and data from the Internet, or it may download content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection.
Which is Better?
When it comes to deciding whether to build a native app or a mobile website, the most appropriate choice really depends on your end goals. If you are developing an interactive game, an app is probably going to be your best option. But if your goal is to offer mobile-friendly content to the widest possible audience, then a mobile website is probably the way to go. In some cases you may decide you need both a mobile website and a mobile app, but it’s pretty safe to say that it rarely makes sense to build an app without already having a mobile website in place.
Advantages of a Mobile Website vs. Native Apps
If your goals are primarily related to marketing or public communications, a mobile website is almost always going to make the most sense for your mobile outreach strategy. This is because a mobile website has a number of inherent advantages over apps:
A mobile website is instantly accessible to users via any device’s web browser. Apps require the user to download and install the app from an app marketplace before the content or application can be viewed, which can be a significant barrier between initial engagement and action/conversion.
A mobile website can reach users across many different types of mobile devices, whereas native apps require a separate version to be developed for each type of device. Furthermore, mobile website URLs are easily integrated within other mobile technologies such as SMS, QR codes, and near field communication (NFC).
A mobile website is much more simple to update. If you want to change the design or content of a mobile website, you simply publish an edit once and the changes are immediately visible worldwide. Meanwhile, updating an app requires the updates to be uploaded to the app store and downloaded by each user. Since some users may not have their devices set to download changes automatically, this can create a “version gap” across your customer base.
Mobile websites are much easier for users to find because their content can be displayed by search engines and listed in industry-specific directories. In contrast, the visibility of apps are largely restricted to manufacturer app stores.
Mobile website URLs are easily shared between users via a regular web link (e.g. within an email or text message, Facebook or Twitter post). Publishers can direct users to a mobile website from a blog or website, or even in print. An app can’t be shared in this fashion.
A Mobile Website Can be an App!
Just like a standard website, mobile websites can be developed as database-driven web applications that act very much like native apps. A mobile web application can be a practical alternative to native app development.
Time and Cost
Last but certainly not least, mobile website development is considerably more time- and cost-effective than development of a native app, especially if you need to have a presence on different platforms (requiring development of multiple apps).
When Does an App Make Sense?
Despite the many inherent benefits of the mobile web, apps are still very popular, and there are a number of specific use scenarios where an app will be your best choice. Generally speaking, if you need one of the following, an app makes sense:
- Interactivity – for interactive games (e.g. Angry Birds), an app is almost always going to be your best choice, at least for the foreseeable future.
- Daily Use – If your target users are going to be using your app in a personalized fashion on a regular basis (e.g. EverNote), an app provides a great way to do that.
- Native Functionality – mobile web browsers are getting increasingly good at accessing certain mobile-specific functions such as click-to-call, SMS and GPS. However, if you need to access a user’s camera or processing power an app will still do that much more effectively.
- No Connection Required – If you need to provide offline access to content or perform functions without a network/wireless connection, then an app makes sense.
As a company with decades of development experience, we at Matcha Design are uniquely qualified to help you discover your exact needs to get your company into the mobile scene. Feel free to contact us for additional information or to discuss whether an app or mobile website might be the right fit for your organization’s needs.