Mobile Websites vs. Apps

In this article we define the difference between a mobile website and an app. We look at the advantages of a mobile website vs. an app. We also look at when to choose a mobile website and an app.

What is the difference between a mobile site and an app?

A mobile website is similar to any standard website you visit using a desktop browser. They consist of HTML pages that are accessed using WiFi, 3G or 4G networks. The obvious characteristic that distinguishes a mobile website from a standard website is that the mobile website is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface. They can display text content, data, images and video, just like any desktop website. They can also access mobile-specific features such as click-to-call or location-based mapping.

Apps are actual applications that are downloaded and installed on your mobile device, rather than being rendered within a browser. Users visit device-specific portals such as the Apple’s App Store, Android Market, or Blackberry App World in order to find and download apps for their mobile phone’s operating system. The app may pull content and data from the Internet, just like a website does, or the app may download the content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection.

Mobile website vs. a native app

Mobile websites have a number of advantages over apps. Here are just some of them. According to a recent survey by EPiServer shows mobile websites have proved to be marginally more popular than apps with 63% of respondents accessing websites on their Smartphone daily compared to 60% using native apps.
It is a similar story with mobile commerce with just over half (51%) of respondents claiming to complete a purchase using a mobile website at least once a month compared to 40% who use apps.

Instantly available
Mobile websites are instantly accessible via the built-in browser on mobile devices and typically work first time out. Apps require the user to first download and install the app from an app marketplace before the content or application can be viewed.
A recent survey by Compuware, highlights that respondents found apps crashing or freeze (62%), are slow to launch (47%) or failing to launch at all (40%).

Compatible across devices and platforms
Mobile websites can reach users across many different platforms and devices, and the URLs are easily integrated within other mobile technologies. Apps however require a separate version to be developed for each type of device. That is one version for each type of tablet, and one for each type of mobile phone

Updated easily
Mobile websites are easier to update compared to updating an App. If you wish to wish to update your website, including your mobile version, you can do so by making the changes in your website editor program and publish. The changes are readily available for all to see. Updating an app on the other hand requires the updates to be pushed to users, which then must be downloaded in order to update the app on each type of device. 

Easy to find
Mobile websites are much easier for users to find because the web pages can be displayed in search results and listed in specific directories, just like any standard web page. Most importantly, visitors to your regular website can be automatically sent to your mobile site when they are on a handheld because of the device-detection programmed into websites. By contrast, the visibility of an app is largely restricted to manufacturer app stores.

Shared easily
Mobile websites can be shared quite easily between users via a simple HTML link. An app however cannot be shared in this fashion. You can tell someone about the app and share a link to the app market place where it can be found and downloaded.

Long shelf-life
The average shelf-life of an app is pretty short, according to recent research stats this can be less than 30 days, so the app is truly unique. Mobile websites are always available for users to return to them. They may change visually in appearance and firms update their online presence but will not be deleted. 

Can be an app too!
Mobile websites can be developed as database-driven web applications that act very much like native apps. A mobile web application can be a practical alternative to native app development.

Time and cost-effective
Mobile design and development is more time and cost-effective than development of a native app, especially if you need to have a presence on different platforms and the short shelf-life of apps. Over time apps require upgrades, testing, resolving of compatibility issues. This is the same with mobile websites but considerably less.

Which to choose – an App or a Mobile Website?

Choosing a mobile website or developing an app depends on your end goals.
For instance, if you are seeking to offer an facilities suitable for online gaming, or  complex calculations systems, or offline access to content and functions no requiring an active network/wireless connection then an app is most likely to be the best option.
A typical example is online banking and investment apps. Most banking names have developed or are developing new apps for their customers.

If you seek to offer a mobile-friendly version of your website then a mobile website is the most likely the way to go.
In some cases you may decide you need both options, a mobile website and a mobile app. A mobile website is considered the first step in developing a mobile web presence, and an app is useful for developing an application for a very specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished via a web browser.