A mobile website is similar to any other website in that it consists of browser-based HTML pages that are linked together and accessed over the Internet (for mobile typically WiFi or 3G or 4G networks). The obvious characteristic that distinguishes a mobile website from a standard website is the fact that it is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface.
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 Apple’s App Store, Android Market, or Blackberry App World in order to find and download apps for a given operating system. The app may pull content and data from the Internet, in similar fashion to a website, or it may download the content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection.
Which is Better – an App or a Mobile (Responsive) Website?
Mobile optimization is becoming more and more trendy these days and it is no surprise. According to Mashable in August 2013, 17.4 percent of all global web traffic came through mobile devices and this number will continue to grow in 2014. So if you don’t want to lose your piece of the pie, it’s time to step into mobile world.
Hoping that industry giants like Google or Apple will adapt your site for mobile devices is not enough unless you don’t mind losing almost every fifth visitor to your site.
Generally speaking, 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 very specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished via a web browser.
Responsive design is a development technique that detects the client type and dynamically adjusts the layout of a site according to the size of the screen on which it is displayed. Thus, the same content may be displayed in a three-column format on a desktop, two-column format on a tablet, and one-column format on a smartphone.
When Does an App Make Sense?
Despite the many inherent benefits of the mobile web, apps are still very popular, and there are a number of specific use scenarios where an app will be your best choice. Generally speaking, if you need one of the following, an app makes sense:
- Interactivity/Gaming – for interactive games (think Angry Birds) an app is almost always going to be your best choice, at least for the foreseeable future.
- Regular Usage/Personalization – If your target users are going to be using your app in a personalized fashion on a regular basis (think EverNote) then an app provides a great way to do that.
- Complex Calculations or Reporting – If you need something that will take data and allow you to manipulate it with complex calculations, charts or reports (think banking or investment) an app will help you do that very effectively.
- Native Functionality or Processing Required – mobile web browsers are getting increasingly good at accessing certain mobile-specific functions such as click-to-call, SMS and GPS. However, if you need to access a user’s camera or processing power an app will still do that much more effectivley.
- 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.
- Responsive sites can support a variety of devices and screen sizes with a single implementation. Dedicated sites are device specific: companies must build separate sites for mobile and for desktop. In contrast, the same responsive site can work well on a range of devices and screen sizes, from smartphones to tablets to desktops.
- Responsive sites offer content and feature parity (at least to some extent). Unlike for mobile-dedicated sites, at least in theory, the same content and functionality is available on all versions of a responsive site. (We saw that in practice, some responsive sites do leave out content and functionality on mobile, but to a lesser extent than mobile-dedicated sites.) No more need to decide which features are important on mobile and which should be left out. Though you still need to prioritize features and decide on their placement on smaller screens.
- Responsive sites used to be easier to find with a search engine. Mobile sites have a different URL than desktop sites, and originally they did not always inherit a high search rank from their sister desktop site. As a result, mobile sites may have appeared lower on search-engine page results. And even if desktop sites detected mobile clients and redirected the users to the corresponding mobile site, the redirect could take extra time and impair the mobile user experience (plus, it could also affect SEO).
Since a single URL corresponds to all versions of a responsive site, responsive sites did not have to worry about SEO or redirects.
Nowadays, however, modern search engines have learned to deal with mobile-dedicated sites, and they do send users to the mobile version of the site if one is available.
- Responsive sites save content and feature maintenance. A single site and a single content repository are easier to maintain than several separate sites. However, any interface change must be tested across all devices.
- Responsive sites tend to be more expensive to develop. Our clients report that the process of building an entire responsive site from scratch can be more costly than just creating a separate mobile site. Also, the development skills required tend to be more advanced for responsive sites.
- Responsive sites tend to be slower. Although there are techniques for improving the performance of responsive sites, because the same content is delivered to all types of devices, loading a responsive page can take longer than loading a mobile-dedicated page.
- Responsive sites work less well for complex tasks and content. Complex tasks are hard to accommodate on all devices equally well. Complex spreadsheets, comparison tables, and visualizations are often difficult to rescale well on small mobile screens. Mobile-dedicated sites may often decide to leave out such content, especially since users tend to avoid doing complicated tasks on smartphones.
- Responsive sites do not integrate well with existing third party services. If you’re building a site that relies on a separate independent backend service (e.g., booking engine on a hotel site), it’s often hard to integrate the interface for that service into a responsive site.