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Mobile App Development vs A Dedicated Mobile Website Design

Jan 22 2014

The Question

Clients are frequently asking the question, “Should we look in to developing a mobile app or create a mobile version of our website?” That’s a tough question and with more and more users relying on mobile devices and tablets to access the web, it’s a very important question. The answer will differ depending on what type of services or information you’re providing to users. For instance, a user’s goals while viewing a classified ad website will differ greatly compared to when they’re viewing a venue website or a small business website.

The Difference

To start, we should define the differences between mobile apps and mobile websites. A mobile app (or “application”) is basically a piece of software designed to run natively on a specific device like an iPhone, iPad or Android device. Some examples of typical mobile applications would be weather apps, social media apps, flashlights, etc.

A mobile website is a version of a website that is optimized for mobile devices but runs within a web browser, like Safari or Google Chrome. There are several different techniques for building mobile websites. The two most common techniques are creating a responsive design or a creating a dedicated mobile version of a website. Responsive design uses the existing site structure as a basis and rearranges or hides/shows elements based on the user’s screen size. A dedicated mobile version of a website uses browser and/or device detection scripts to display an entirely different “template” for the website that is optimized for various mobile devices.

The Pros & Cons

As with anything, there are pros and cons to both techniques. Cost is a huge factor when deciding on a mobile app or mobile website. Apps are expensive to develop. There are some “DIY” sort of solutions and providers that can get this done for a bit less but typically, the cost is going to be significantly more than it would be to build a mobile version of a website and in many cases, the ROI can be tough to quantify.

Secondly and perhaps just as important is distribution and deployment. When building a mobile app, you’ll want to offer several versions of the app for at least the big name operating systems: iOS and Android. Once your app is developed it must be submitted and reviewed before it will be available to users. With a mobile website, you basically have the same website for all platforms and deployment is done via “traditional” means such as FTP. The same basic process applies to making design and functionality updates though with apps, users then have to consciously update the app, and even though auto updates are becoming more prevalent, users can disable this feature.

Interactivity is a big factor when considering app vs website. As of this writing, a mobile website and the technologies behind it aren’t going to be near as robust as the technologies available for mobile app development. Apps also allow for more access to a device’s features like address books and direct access to cameras. (photos and video can currently be uploaded to a mobile website but a website can’t directly access a camera). It’s worth noting that web technologies are developing fast and html5 has already given developers access through a web browser to many native device features like geolocation and orientation.

One more thing to consider is timelines. Development and deployment of a mobile app generally takes much longer than it takes to build and deploy a mobile version of a website.

Apps appear at first glance to have an advantage in ease of access since they offer an icon that can be placed on a user’s home screen, however, there is an option with a mobile site that allows users to save or bookmark the site to their home screen as well which basically creates an app icon on their phone that goes to the mobile site.

The Conclusion

The argument for a dedicated app might be strengthened if you have a very high number of frequent repeat visitors. Casual users are probably not likely to wait on an app to download and install when they can simply click a directions or schedule link to get the info they need. Users also need to be able to find your app among the thousands available in various app stores. Mobile apps are also better suited (right now anyway) for games and highly interactive needs that require access to the device’s native features like the camera. In most cases however, a mobile-optimized website is going to be the best solution. Lower cost, ease of development and quick timelines are just a few of the reasons that mobile websites are advantageous over apps.

In the interest of full disclosure, Nashville Interactive doesn’t handle native mobile app development directly at this time though we do occasionally work in a consulting and design role when that’s what the project requires. We do however handle mobile website development directly so call us at 615.521.1890 for a free quote if you’re in need of a better mobile presence.