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.
A 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).|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.