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Mobile Website vs. Mobile App: What’s the Difference and Which Do You Need?

Posted on: March 10th, 2014

It’s 2014 and more people are using their mobile devices than their desktop computers to access the internet. Establishing a mobile presence for your business has become a necessity instead of a novelty. One of the first considerations that will likely come to mind is whether you want to create a mobile application for users to download (an “app”) or a mobile website, or perhaps even both.

What’s the Difference Between an App and a Mobile Website?

Mobile websites and apps can look very similar at first-glance;  both are accessed on handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets.

mobile website is similar to any other website in that it is accessed over the Internet and uses a browser (usually Safari on iPhone and Chrome on Android) to display a series of pages written in HTML and other web technologies. Mobile website visitors, when attempting to visit a desktop site, are usually either redirected to a mobile-only website, or, if experiencing a “responsive” website, see the web pages reconfigured to fit their device’s smaller screen. (Learn more about the advantages of responsive design.)

Mobile apps are programs that are downloaded and installed on a mobile device, similar to how software such as Microsoft Word is installed on a desktop computer. Users find, download, and install their apps via device-specific portals such as  Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. While they may pull content from the Internet, most apps are designed to work in offline mode.

Here’s a quick look at how mobile apps and websites stack up against each other:

Mobile Website Mobile App
Audience reach Any device with a browser. Must have a specific operating system and device.
User experience Limited by Internet connection & browser technologies. Performance is improving. Capable of offline mode. Very fast if built with “native” technologies.
Access to built-in phone capabilities Limited. Usually simple GPS and “click to call” features. Very robust: GPS, camera, microphone, accelerometer, etc.
Ease of development Typically rolled into a “responsive” website build, using the same technologies as building a desktop website. Requires unique programming languages and tools for each operating system. Many developers focus on one operating system at the expense of another.
Distribution Published as a website, accessible immediately. Easily found via standard Google searches, or typing in a URL directly in the browser. May require a submission to the operating system’s app store. Sometimes a lengthy approval process.
Discovery & sharing Easily found via standard Google searches, or typing in a URL directly in the browser. Easy for users to share the website link via email, social networks, etc. Users must find, download, and install the app prior to use. App store search tools are limited and competition is high. Difficult for users to share the app.
Updates & maintenance Easily updated. If rolled into a responsive website, updated whenever desktop site is updated. User only has to refresh browser. May require a resubmission to the app store. Requires user to manually update (or set app to auto-update).

devices

Is an App or a Mobile Website Best for my Business?

While mobile apps are extremely trendy, a basic question any business owner needs to ask is, “Do I need an app at all?”

If you provide a service that primarily requires in-person or phone meetings, then no, you probably do not need a mobile app. The same is true for a brick-and-mortar owner with one or two locations. A mobile website will best suit your needs and allow customers to easily find and contact you.

Conversely, if you offer a highly interactive experience, a native mobile app may be a worthwhile investment, as it will provide tremendous performance benefits over using the mobile web, including being accessible in offline mode.

How Do I Choose Between an App or a Mobile Website?

Every mobile project presents unique challenges and considerations, but regardless of your circumstances, you should consider the following key factors:

Purpose and Goals

The first question you should ask yourself is, “What is the purpose of my mobile initiative?” Possible motivating factors include:

  • Our regular website doesn’t work well on mobile devices, which is hurting traffic.
  • Our audience regularly needs access to our information throughout the day.
  • Our customers would like to be able to access some of our features offline.
  • We want to offer functionality like GPS or camera integration.
  • Our customers need complex interactivity or reporting tools.

Whatever your goal, define it first, without yet trying to decide if it’s best solved by a mobile website or app.

Audience

Define your audience and estimate how frequently these people engage with your brand or business. People tend to download apps for things they do regularly – that’s why so many smartphone users use apps for Facebook and banking, instead of using the mobile versions of these websites.

User Experience

Imagine how users will interact with your mobile presence:

  • Do they need to access features on their phone, such as their camera?
  • Is offline mode important?
  • Will the experience be highly interactive (such as a game), or more text-based?

The answers to these questions can guide you towards which technologies are best suited to develop your project.

Budget

Let’s face it, budget can be a serious consideration. Developing individual mobile apps for multiple operating systems or devices can be expensive and resource-intensive, and may require shutting off part of your audience while you focus on one family of devices (example: iPhone) over another.

As a general rule, regardless of budget, start your mobile initiative with a mobile website; tablets and mobile phones are immensely popular browsing devices and having a mobile website will ensure your brand makes its way into your customers’ hands. Also, consider a responsive website over a mobile-only website – it’s one of Google’s “best practices” and will help your desktop site’s overall organic SEO, to boot.

It’s also important to know that a mobile website can mimic a mobile app! If your proposed functionality can be accomplished in a web browser and offline mode is not important, you can develop your website to act just like an app! It will have all of the benefits of a mobile website and none of the hassle of an app store’s submission and review process.

responsive website design

In Conclusion

As long as mobile remains a relatively new frontier, the “app vs website” question will remain a hot topic for businesses seeking to establish a mobile presence.

If your mobile goals are primarily to deliver content and establish a broad presence that can be easily shared between users and found on search engines, then a mobile website is the logical choice.

On the other hand, if you need to provide an interactive experience that needs to work more like a computer program than a website, then an app is probably going to be required.

Whether or not you choose one solution or both, understanding the benefits and shortfalls of each, combined with having a business-driven purpose that focuses on the end-user’s experience and expectations, will help ensure your mobile success.


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