Should I Build a Mobile Website or a Mobile App?

Since so much website interaction is now taking place on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets it’s clear your business needs a strong mobile presence. The question is should you build a mobile app or a mobile website?

Certainly a lot depends on your particular situation and what you want visitors to be able to do. Let’s examine mobile websites and mobile apps and see what might be right for you.

What Is a Mobile Website?

A mobile website is very similar to a desktop website in that it is based on HTML5 pages that are accessed via the internet, through your smartphone’s web browser app. A mobile website is optimized for viewing on smaller devices such as smartphones and tablets. It is standard practice these days to launch desktop websites that have features which allow them to display properly on smaller devices. The two options available to make this happen are:

  1. Mobile Responsive. This is the most common method used and makes the full sized desktop website shrink down, along with the images and text, in order to fit the smaller screen.  This is usually sufficient for most traditional websites, however may not be adequate when you want your mobile version of your website to appear more like an app.
  2. Mobile Adaptive. With mobile adaptive an entirely separate mobile website is created that is specifically designed for the mobile device. Mobile adaptive is used when you want mobile users to have a very specific looking experience. Using the mobile adaptive option, you can create a more app-like experience for the end user, without having to build a mobile app. It’s still accessed using the smartphone’s web browser but the look and feel and operation can look very much like an app. This can be a good compromise if you don’t have the funds to invest in a dedicated mobile app and yet are not satisfed with the look and feel produced with a mobile responsive website.

What Is a Mobile App?

A mobile app, also called a native app is a software based program which runs on a portable device that can work with or without internet access but which first must be downloaded onto a customer’s smartphone or tablet in order to use it. An app must be designed for whatever platform on which it will be used. For example to have an app work on Apple products and Android products, usually 2 separate apps have to be created in 2 different languages, effectively doubling the effort required. However newer technologies are available which are making it possible to build your app in a sort of universal language which can then be exported onto both Apple and Android platforms. With a mobile app, rather than your app showing up on search engine results page when users perform a search, your app will be found on the app stores for your specific platform such as Android’s Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store.

A mobile app has more deeply embedded functions built into it, which allow it to work with the hardware contained in your smartphone, such as it’s camera, GPS, phone, microphone, speakers, storage, etc. An app can also interact with the low level features contained in the phone’s operating system giving the app access to the web, sms messaging, phone calls, uploading, downloading, wifi access, bluetooth, etc. This allows apps to deeply harness the power of your smartphone, plus the cloud to create a more immersive experience.

When You Should Build a Mobile Website

To answer the question of when to build a mobile website vs when to build a mobile app, the first thing we have to think about is the need and utility. If you have a traditional website or ecommerce store, then a mobile website should be your first consideration. Most generic desktop website interactions such as looking up information, accessing images and shopping can all be performed reasonably well with a mobile website.

Here are some reasons why you should build a mobile website:

1. Mobile Websites Leverage Off Your Existing Web Presence & Traffic

Because a mobile website shows up in search engines just like a desktop site, mobile websites can gain a wide audience. Unless a visitor knows an app exists for your business, they are likely not going to search that out and most users aren’t going to download an app to access traditional information that they expect to get from a mobile website. In many cases, they might not even know your business exists! However, a general web search will likely land them on your mobile website where they can interact with your pages, get to know your brand and even shop. Mobile websites are easily shared between users, which makes it easy to increase awareness and reach.

2. Mobile Websites Work Across All Devices

Because a mobile website works with HTML pages, it will work across all devices rather than needing to be built for specific platforms. This means that no matter if a person uses an Apple device or an Android device they can both see the same great content. If the goal is to extend your desktop website reach onto mobile devices, a mobile website is likely the next logical step.

3. Mobile Websites are Easily Maintained and Upgraded

If you want to update your mobile website you simply make the changes and publish when you are finished. The changes are integrated instantly and show up across all devices. With a mobile app, updates are more complex and require changes and testing on both major platforms (Android and IOS). Updates need to be pushed to the app store and approved, and then users must download the new updates onto their device.

4. Mobile Websites Can Be a Great Option for an MVP

When you are testing out a new concept for a web or mobile app service, building a native app can get expensive. Due to the lower costs involved in building a mobile website, this might be a great option for the initial MVP (Minimum Viable Product). The whole idea of an MVP is to test the minimum product that you can build for your end users so you can learn, get feedback and improve the product to attain the results you are looking for.

5. Mobile Websites are Gaining App-Like Features

Web developers can now expand beyond text and images on their mobile web pages to interactive content that can carry out tasks and connect with applications on the mobile device. Mobile websites can now be build which can access your smartphones:

  • Microphone
  • Camera
  • GPS
  • Accelerometer
  • Thermometer
  • Clock
  • Alarm
  • Calendar

As developers build more API’s (application program interfaces) into traditional mobile web browsers, more and more interactive capabilities will be available for mobile websites.

When to Build a Mobile App

If your company is seeking to build a new mobile specific app or service, a mobile app is usually going to be the right choice since that is your target platform and audience. Mobile websites are great as websites serving up similar content for the smaller device, but mobile apps are designed for specific functions where the business has a really strong focus on the mobile experience.

Mobile apps are best used when building a service tailored around the mobile experience such as:

  • Social media apps
  • Messaging or communication apps
  • Gaming apps
  • Apps which need to reliably use GPS
  • Utilities
  • Camera based apps
  • Time waster apps

You will also want to transition from mobile website to a mobile app when:

  • You need a better more app-like experience.
  • Your user base is large enough and would desire an app.
  • Your business focus is squarely moving to the mobile phone.

Final Factors to Consider

As you ponder where to start, it really depends on where you are in your business and what goals you want to achieve as discussed above. Here are some final factors to consider.

Because a mobile website is really just a mobile version of your desktop website, it is naturally more inexpensive to build. If your company is already established and has a desktop site, you simply borrow the style, navigation, layout and of course all the site’s content from your desktop version which can save considerable time and money. Updating and managing your mobile website is much easier too, since you only need to make a change in your desktop website and such changes will be reflected on your mobile website. If you are on a smaller budget, it could make sense to start with a mobile website first.

As mentioned earlier, a mobile app typically is built for at least two platforms, Android and iOS, and so it is going to cost more to build. It will also cost more to maintain since updates need to be pushed to the app store and approved, and then users must download the new updates onto their device.

However, your decision is really based on your business and what you are trying to do. If your application fits the criteria of a mobile app, then you’ll should expect it to cost more to build and maintain. Some industries/concepts must start with mobile apps, especially those targeting the younger crowd, social media, photos, videos, gps, or those in the entertainment space.

Need Help Deciding?

Most of the web services we build at NVTS eventually have a mobile website and a mobile app, but customers don’t always need to start with both. Sometimes it makes sense to start with just one or the other as a test.

Would you like to find out more about which choice is right for you? We offer a free 30 minute consultation to discuss your ideas. Request a Call  to find out what we can do for you. We offer full digital solutions to power and grow your business.