June 18, 2015 Aaron Carpenter

Mobile Apps vs Mobile Responsive Web Applications

Mobile apps are a powerful way to connect with your market, collect data on your clients, and provide service to your clients on a new platform.  But what is a mobile app, exactly?

Essentially, a mobile app is a computer program that runs on a smartphone, tablet, or mobile device.  They’re made available through marketplaces like Google Play, or Apple’s App Store, for instance.  These platforms now run on cloud-based solutions, meaning if your phone gets run over by a truck or if you drop it in the water, you can get a new phone, log in, and automatically get all of your apps re-installed.

icloud restore

When you set up a new iOS device or need to restore information on one you already have, your iCloud backup makes it easy.

Apps vs. Mobile Responsive Websites

Comparing mobile apps to mobile responsive websites doesn’t really work.  They’re completely different ideas.  Let’s examine why.

Mobile use on the internet has been on a steady upward trend.  Users are getting more comfortable using their smartphones to search and browse the internet.  To respond to this demand, organizations are paying web developers to improve their online experience on mobile devices.  You may have seen, for example, the difference on websites like Amazon between your smartphone and desktop.

mobile responsive amazon website

The same website appears differently, when viewed with different sized screens.

The truth is, mobile responsive websites and mobile apps are really apples and oranges.  Mobile websites are a variation on the browsing experience.  Mobile responsive websites change how you view a website.  A more accurate comparison would be to highlight the differences between mobile applications and web applications (think Pandora, Spotify, Google Docs, Facebook).  These are websites that act like computer programs because, well, they are.  Website applications are interactive (web) computer programs (application).

Apps vs. Web Applications

These we can compare.   I sat down with Michael Wahlstrom of the Kitchen Digital to compare of the pros and cons of each.

Advantages of Mobile Applications (Mobile Apps)

Internet Independent and Caching One of the primary advantages of mobile apps is their ability to function without an internet connection.  In other words, if you want to create an app that allows a user to search a database for information, play a game, or capture an image, all of these things can work with a mobile app.  Information can be stored in the mobile device until an internet connection is restored.  Then that information can be added back to the internet.

Interactivity / Gaming – Gaming and interactivity features through web browsers are advancing, but some would argue are still not caught up to native programming languages for computing devices and mobile devices.  So if you’re planning on having a highly interactive experience like a game, a mobile app is probably the way to go.

Time spent on mobile devices and mobile applications is trending strongly upward  – According to a study by SalesForce – 85% of respondents said mobile devices are a central part of everyday life—and 90% of those aged 18-24 agreed.  91% of consumers say access to content any way they want is important.  Clearly, being mobile-oriented is a smart strategy for the future. [source: http://www.exacttarget.com/sites/exacttarget/files/deliverables/etmc-2014mobilebehaviorreport.pdf].
Bells and Whistles – Sure, Chrome announced push notifications to browser and mobile devices, but there are is just so much more actionable information possible with mobile devices:  BlueTooth, Beacons, geofencing, wifi, push notifications, in app billing, google play can have in app purchases, the list goes on.

Advantages of Mobile Responsive Web Applications

Already Programmed as Your Web Application – Since you’ve likely already programmed your application as a website, all that is left to do is examine the mobile experience and tailor the user interface to be more mobile friendly.  That means adjusting navigation menus, buttons, font sizes and input fields to create a better mobile experience.

Not Device Platform Dependent – Web applications aren’t dependent on the operating system (needing a different app for iOS (Apple App Store) and Android (Google Play).  There are hybrid technologies which mobile app developers can use to create a singular set of code for your app across both of these platforms, but it’s new technology and quite expensive.  With a web application, a web developer designs for the most popular web browsers.  Once this is done, it will work on any device that uses that browser (chrome, firefox, internet explorer).

Content is not regulated by the app store rules and regulations – Web applications live outside of the rules of the Apple’s App Store and Androids Google Play store, so they can play by their own rules.  Nothing extra to go to market, no extra hoops to jump through.
Cross-linking with web / linking apps together  – This is a bit newer to the industry, but it’s the idea that you can link apps together that have synergistic opportunities, or are part of the same production company.
*Consider limitations of WebGL  – WebGL is the graphics engine of web browsers.  While it can accomplish a lot, it still isn’t the best engine for developing mobile based CPU intensive applications or graphics intensive applications.

Advantages of Both / Hybrids

Monetization – With either, you can create a paywall and monetize the application.  Want users to pay $5 per month?  Or a one-time fee of $15?  No problem.  Even if you want consumables (amount paid for downloads within the app) either of these platforms can accomplish this for you.

Engagement – Both technologies can harness the information you can get from a mobile phone.  However, depending on what you want your application to do, you may even need to consider a hybrid of web application development and mobile application development.

So How Should I Decide?

The best way to make an informed decision is to consult with an expert.  Your developer is going to ask you questions which highlight the above ideas and more to gain an understanding of how your application will best be implemented and on what platforms and technologies it should be built on.  It’s not a bad idea to consult multiple developers, but bear in mind that application development is half art and half science.  Developers may have different ideas on how they would execute your idea, and they’ll probably play it to their corner so they can offer you more value through their fields of expertise.

Either way, application development is an extensive process that requires a healthy budget.  Be prepared for quotes that include five digits and questions about ROI and value to users to determine if the app is feasible in the first place before starting development.

 

Contributor: Michael Wahlstrom is co-owner of the Kitchen Digital.  You can check out what they’re all about at the Kitchen Digital Website.

About the Author

Aaron Carpenter My name is Aaron Carpenter and I've been building web applications since 2002. Helping shape internet experiences for people to best match what their users are looking for, and creating web applications that become online tools to help manage businesses is what I love to do most.

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