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Mobile App vs Mobile Website


Active Member
An article we did that maybe of interest to DF members now or in the future for reference over the Mobile App v Mobile Website. Which to choose? Here is a comprehensive guide to the pros and cons of both routes. Many times clients ask us for an “App” when in fact all they need is a mobile website, and vice versa. Many clients don’t know the difference.A Mobile App is a piece of software built specifically to run on a particular device – whether that be an iPhone, Android, Blackberry etc where as a Mobile website is a standard website formatted to display on mobile device web browsers. These mobile websites tend to be cut down versions of the “desktop” website.Whilst these two approached used to be very different, the advances in mobile and web technologies in the past 2 years has allowed mobile websites to look and function much more like a mobile app, without the need to download and install software on your mobile device.

Who is your target audience?
When choosing between a mobile app and a mobile website you need to consider your audience and whether you want to target a niche or the mass market. If you wish to reach a wider audience then a mobile website would be better as it allows a larger user base to access the content as it’s available through any mobile device with a web browser. If you prefer to target a niche user base on a particular device and operating system then a mobile app is the way to go.

The user experience
When making the decision between a mobile app and a mobile you website you also need to consider the end-user experience. Mobile apps tend to provide more feature rich functionality and depending on the application, can function without an Internet connection. Mobile apps have a tighter integration with the device they are running on and can access various aspects of the devices hardware (camera for example) and software.Since mobile website run “within” a web browser running on the device they don’t have direct access to the device and can only provide limited functionality. Mobile websites tend to work better choices for delivering content, catalogues and shopping functions.Promoting and driving traffic to a mobile website is also much easier than that of a mobile app as you don’t have to convince someone to visit an “app store” to download and install some software that might be of no use to them.

The future
With the rapid advancement in mobile and web technologies it won’t be too long before mobile website are offering functionality previously only available through a dedicated application. With mobile browsers, mobile networks and mobile hardware getting faster and faster there is no reason why a mobile website cannot be a feasible substitute for a mobile app.

What about the cost?
Mobile websites tend to cost less to build and maintain over time. That’s because to change an app you (probably) have to hire a programmer, and you need approval from the app store. Plus, every time a particular device is updated, you’ll need to change your app accordingly.If you’re just beginning to create your mobile marketing footprint, most experts agree that it’s better to start with a mobile website. That’s because well-designed mobile sites can easily be turned into apps later.If you just have to reach iPhone users, find a programmer with a good reputation, multiple deployments and good ratings from users.

Which one should you choose?
Making the final decision between a Mobile App and a Mobile Website really comes down to the functionality required, target audience, budget and availability of skills.To try and help you make a decision here are some pro’s and con’s of both approaches.

Mobile Applications
Pro: User Experience
The main advantage of building an app is the user experience. Most mobile browsers can’t handle complex and intensive JavaScript and Flash. A properly built app gives a developer control over the way text and images are displayed, as well as the use of sounds and videos. Apps can utilize the whole screen of the phone and remove other distractions from the shopper like address bars. There are also no compatibility issues when apps are dedicated to the device they were developed for. Screen size and features are consistent for all users.

Pro: Hardware features
GPS, camera and “shake” functionality can all be integrated into apps. For example, a customer could add an item to cart by shaking her phone. For multichannel retailers with local stores, mobile applications can offer a GPS based store finder, or “augmented reality” where you can view a street through your iPhone’s camera and it will tell you the nearest gas station or fast food restaurant.

Pro: Loyalty
A customer who actively downloads and installs an app has a pretty good chance of using it. The app on the “desktop” is top-of-mind.

Pro: Off-line usage
Even when Wi-Fi or 3G is unavailable, a customer can browse your catalogue or other application features, which do not require Internet access. A great example of this is Spotify. Their app allows you to stream live music when an Internet connection is available but also download tracks to your device for use when an Internet connection is no longer available.

Con: Development resources
Mobile apps take longer to develop than mobile websites. Not only because the look and feel of the app will usually have to be built from scratch, but also because you will need to create multiple apps to reach a wide audience.On top of this most mobile apps require additional programming knowledge, where as mobile website are standard HTML and CSS. Additional costs would be incurred if this cannot be accomplished in-house.The iPhone currently dominates the app market, but with the large amount of other devices and app stores popping up, that will not last forever. Some think that Android-based mobile phones will surpass the iPhone in market share by 2012.

Con: Adoption and usage
Before a customer can experience your app, they have to download and install it. You will mainly reach your most loyal customers who are fairly invested in your brand. Just as with PCs, most people think twice before they install an app on their phone.

Con: Nascent market
Despite all the press coverage, the app market in total is not that big. Only 13.3% of the phones sold in Q3 of 2009 were Smartphones, and of those only 17.1% were iPhones. With Apple controlling the app market for now, that’s a very small number of potential customers.

Mobile Websites
Pro: Less required resources
Typically, Mobile sites will be quicker to implement compared to building an app with a unique look and feel. Although depending on your functional and design requirements and the increasing variety of devices and web browsers you may need to optimise your website for more than one device and/or screen size.Since mobile websites tend to be less feature rich versions of their “desktop” alternatives you can usually re-use many aspects of your existing infrastructure.

Pro: Accessible to all
Since mobile websites are accessible on any mobile device with a web browser there is no need for the user to download and install an application. Unless a user is familiar with your brand they may be unwilling to install your app.

Con: Limited functionality
Despite all Smartphones having web browsers, many of them aren’t capable of handling the same complex and dynamic functionality as the browsers found on a desktop computer. Features we take for granted on our desktops such as Flash can be very problematic on Smartphones, if it’s even supported at all.With the increased use of JavaScript to provide more interactivity between the user and the website, many mobile browsers simply don’t have the processing power to cope and the results can vary from slow functioning to software crashes.Being confined to working within the confines of the phone’s browser means you typically cannot use more advanced functions like GPS to provide location based services, although this functionality is becoming more available with the latest devices and software.It also means the customer must have an active Internet connection to continue to use your website. If the connection is lost you could potentially lose a sale.

Con: Customer satisfaction
A mobile website may not have the same appeal for a loyal customer who might expect a greater interaction or immersion on your brand.

Neither a mobile app nor a mobile website is a perfection solution. Both have their benefits and drawbacks and the ultimate decision to use either depends on the needs of the project.In an ideal world where your budget allowed, the best solution would be to build both, but in most situations this simply isn’t feasible.

So, how do you choose?Simple answer: It all depends on your target audience! Choose the solution which best fits the needs of your users.