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November 29, 2012

Mobile app vs. Mobile website – what’s the right answer?

I’m not a mobile developer.. yet. What I am, however, is a pretty advanced mobile user, with an analytical mind who spends a lot of time thinking about things that usually make my brain hurt.

I also stayed at a Holiday Inn Express® last night.. 

It seems like the thing to do these days is to build an app and lately our clients are asking us more and more to help them decide whether or not they need an app. The challenge that we find is how to determine whether a mobile app is needed or whether a mobile website is a better answer to fit a company’s mobile strategy. 

In my mind, answering a few questions tends to sway the discussion to one side or the other.

  1. Do you need any of the hardware available in the mobile device? If you need to make use of the camera, the GPS, accelerometer, etc. then you will need to build a mobile application. There may be some hacks to get your mobile-enabled website to make use of these things, but they are just that: hacks. You probably can’t depend on them to work consistently, or on every device.
  2. Do you need some or all of your functionality to be available offline? Mobile websites are great, but they do need an Internet connection in order to do anything. Mobile applications provide functionality where no connection is available. These places aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, but they exist. If this isn’t a concern, then a mobile website will usually be sufficient.
  3. Will functionality of your website change or evolve frequently? Functionality means features. Mobile applications need to be submitted to the appropriate app store, and in some cases, need to be approved by the app store owner before they are available for download. With a mobile website, any changes that are published will be seen by your users immediately.
  4. Are cost and reach a factor? Mobile websites are able to use the same code base to cover all hardware from tablets to phones to desktops. You do need to make some accommodations in the CSS to make it spectacular and responsive, but compare the time and cost to building a separate app for iOS®, Android®, and Windows® phones. The mobile website will be cheaper, and be able to reach more users out of the box.

The questions above are not by any means an exhaustive list, they are really meant start a discussion. The discussion should include the long-term plan for your company’s digital strategy. Whether you decide to go with a mobile website or a mobile app, make sure that it is well thought out, well maintained, and the content on it is relevant and updated often – that is what is going to keep your users engaged and returning.