We’re reaching the end of 2012, the predicted “Year of Mobile”.  So what have we learned over the past year, was mobile over-hyped? It seems not. The trend of users accessing the web via mobile devices has at least met those predictions of earlier this year, with mobile visitors to the web now accounting for 13% of mobile visits (For those of you keeping score, the last time I wrote about mobile, a mere two months ago, that number was just shy of 12%).  It’s clear that mobile usage is not slowing down, and while desktop usage is probably not going away any time soon, you’ve hopefully decided that you should be thinking about how to reach your audience on their mobile devices.

For many business owners, this may spark the idea that they need a mobile app to promote their business.  But instead of building a mobile app, would you be better served by instead beefing up your mobile website?

Mobile Websites vs. Mobile Apps: What’s the difference?


Mobile Websites

A mobile website is essentially the same as any website, with a friendlier design and better structure for the device you are accessing the site from.  The application lives on a web server, what this means for a user is that access to the site is immediate.  There are no additional steps to take to access a mobile website.

Sometimes the mobile site exists at a different url, like m.example.com or example.com/mobile where you see entirely different information than a desktop user would, though this doesn’t have to necessarily be the case, as Adam wrote recently in An Introduction to Responsive Web Design (RWD) the trend is for the entire site to be accessible from your mobile device, only in mobile-friendly format.  Before responsive web design, many mobile sites redirected a user to a simplified version of the website.  The redirection and the lack of choices in navigation ended up being a poor user experience.  If the mobile site lacks a ‘view full site’ option, the frustration could be compounded.  However, mobile does not, and should not, mean simplified.  A user should be able to find the information they need no matter the device they are accessing your site from.

Mobile Apps

When showing the functionality of a phone or tablet, apps are what come to mind.  They’re sleek, their user interface has usually been well-thought out from the outset of design, and they can show off the processing power of the device, using its built-in features like the camera or GPS location. Apps are familiar to people.  They’re not necessarily standardized, but a person knows if they open an application on a mobile device, they are going to be presented with a similar interface as other apps.

A mobile app is different from a website in that it is a self-contained program that runs independently from the internet, thought it may need to connect to the internet for many of its features. Because is runs on the operating system, instead of the browser, a user must first download it to their device.  While there is only one internet, there are multiple mobile operating systems (Apple, Android, Windows) so a separate application needs to be developed for each platform.

The breakdown

Mobile Website Mobile App
Users can access site right away Users must download app first to be able to use it
Visitors can find mobile website via search engines and can be optimized further to promote this Users must know of app before accessing it, or search for it in an app market
 User can use any mobile device with a web browser to access mobile site Separate applications specific to the operating platform must be created
Navigation between your mobile site and the rest of the web is a familiar user experience Linking to the internet  or necessitate a switch in current active application and use more device resources
Using best practices, and thinking about user experience from the initial design of the site can lead to an enhanced user experience as well. Familiar user experience
Can provide functional  device interaction like click-to-call using the phone’s dialer, or a map link opening the native navigation application Easier access to a mobile device’s internal functions like camera, accelerometer, gps
User needs connection to the internet to browse Can be accessed offline, though many features will need to access the internet
For searching, shopping, researching products, and browsing, users prefer mobile websites For interactions on a daily basis like a social network, banking application, or feed reader capabilities the mobile app performs better
Cost of building a mobile website is significantly lower than building a mobile app Building individual apps for multiple platforms can inflate development costs quickly, bug tracking and upgrades are more expensive as well

The bottom line

For the majority of businesses who are looking to grow their visibility, it shouldn’t be a consideration of “Should I spend time on a mobile site or an app?” Make sure you have a mobile website first, and make it as good as it needs to be, to attract an audience.  An app will never take the place of a findable, informative, and connected website.  Engage your audience on the mobile site, prove you have what they need, and build a good following. Only after establishing a large enough base to justify further development, if a feed reader, or social connect application makes sense for your business, pursue that to solidify your audience even more and maintain a constant connection with them.

About Nicolas Arellano

Nicolas Arellano

I believe in drawing upon a wide variety of disciplines in order to creatively solve problems in the most effective way. Build from the past, but don’t allow it to dictate the future, as every challenge is familiar but unique. View all posts by Nicolas Arellano →