When making the choice to establish a mobile presence for your business or organization, one of the first decisions you need to make is whether you want to create a mobile application for users to download to their phone or a mobile website, or both. While apps and websites can look very similar at first glance, determining which is best suited for your needs depends upon a number of factors including target audience, available budget, intended purpose and required features.

What is the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app?

In order to best evaluate the benefits of a mobile website vs. an app, you need to understand the key differences between the two. Both options are accessible on handheld devices such as smartphones (e.g. iPhone, Android, etc.) and tablets.

A mobile website is similar to any other website in that it contains browser-based HTML pages that are linked together and accessed over the internet. What obviously distinguishes a mobile website from a standard website is the fact that it is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface.

Like any website, mobile websites can display text content, data, images and video. They can also access mobile specific features such as click-to-call or location based mapping.

Apps, on the other hand, are actual applications that are downloaded and installed on your mobile device, rather than being rendered within a browser. Users visit device specific portals like Apple’s App Store or Android Market in order to download an app for a given operating system. The app may pull content and data from the internet, similarly to a website, or it may download the content so that it can be accessed without an internet connection.

Which is better – a mobile website or an app?

When it comes to deciding whether to build an application or a mobile website, the most appropriate choice really depends on your end goals. If you are developing an interactive game, an app is more than likely to be your best option. If your goal is to offer mobile friendly content to the widest possible audience, a mobile website is the best fit for you. In some instances, the need for both may arise.

For the majority of people, a mobile website should be considered your first step in developing a mobile web presence, whereas an app is useful for developing an application for a specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished via a web browser.

Advantages of a Mobile Website

  • Instant Availability Through the use of a browser, a mobile website is instantly accessible, whereas with an application the user must download and install the app from the app marketplace before having the opportunity to view or use the content.
  • Compatibility A mobile website can reach users across many different types of mobile devices. Native apps require separate versions to be developed for each type of device.
  • Upgradability In terms of pure flexibility, a mobile website is much more dynamic than an app when it comes to content updating. If you need to change the design or content of a mobile website, you simply publish the edit once and the changes are immediately visible. Updating an app requires updates to be pushed to users, which then must be downloaded in order to update the app on each type of device.
  • Findability Mobile websites are much easier to find because their pages can be displayed in search results and live in industry-specific directories. Most importantly, visitors to your regular website can be automatically sent to your mobile site when they are on a handheld device. Apps, on the other hand, are basically restricted to manufacturer app stores.
  • Shareability The URLs of mobile websites are easily shared between users via a simple link, such as within an email or text, Facebook or Twitter post. An app simply cannot be shared in this fashion.
  • Dual Functionality Mobile websites can also be an app. They can be developed as database-driven web applications that act very much like native apps. A mobile web app can be a practical alternative to native app development.
  • Time and Cost Last but definitely not least, mobile website development is considerably more time and cost effective than the development of a native app, especially if you require a presence on different platforms.

When does it make sense to develop an app?

  • Interactivity/Gaming For interactive games, an app is almost always going to be your best choice.
  • Regular Usage/Personalization If your target users are going to be using your app in a personalized fashion on a regular basis, then an app provides the best way to do that.
  • Complex Calculations or Reporting If you need to take data and manipulate it with complex calculations, charts or reports, an app will be a very effective tool to use.
  • 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.

When developing an app, you want to ensure that you are getting an optimal return on your investment. What you definitely want to avoid at all costs is the needless and expensive exercise of building an app to do something basic that can be achieved with a mobile website.

Considering that smart phones and mobile platforms are a relatively new and ever-evolving frontier, the ‘app vs. web’ question will remain a very real question for organizers seeking to establish a mobile presence. If your mobile goals are primarily marketing driven or your aim is to deliver content and establish a broad mobile presence that can be easily shared between users and found on search engines, then a mobile website is the logical choice. However, if your goal is interactive engagement with users or to provide an application that works more like a computer program than a website, the use of a mobile app would best fit your needs.

At SSMCreative, we are tasked with helping clients figure out the best way to reach customers and drive consumers to their businesses in the most effective way. We have had a great deal of success developing interactive websites that function seamlessly on mobile devices.