Apps vs Responsive Websites

Apps vs Responsive Websites

By Bryony Morris on 18th Aug 2014,

One of the most enduring debates within mobile technology circles is the classic 'mobile apps versus mobile web' conundrum. Both sides of the camp advance well-reasoned and compelling arguments, and there is a plethora of extremely valid points to support each case. Consequently, it appears to be a debate where neither side is likely to win out, at least within the immediate time frame, so it could be seen as a somewhat redundant topic. However, it is certainly worth exploring the current state of the debate to see what lessons we can take from it and to place the options into some perspective.

It is worth briefly outlining the two cases before attempting to differentiate between them.

Native mobile apps are software applications written for specific mobile devices in order to perform a particular task or function. These apps are designed to run locally on a device's operating system and machine firmware, and need to be downloaded and installed on the device in order to function. Mobile apps typically need to be adapted for the different operating systems employed on many hand-held devices and are typically written in proprietary code for each OS.

A mobile site is an optimised website that is delivered through a browser application and can usually be accessed from any web-capable mobile device. The functionality within a mobile site is provided over the Web each time it is requested by the device and no software is required to be installed locally on the device. Mobile sites are typically coded in a browser-rendered language, such as HTML5 combined with JavaScript, and are largely platform independent.

Each path has a number of positive benefits over the other whilst also suffering from an equivalent number of relative deficiencies. Responsive sites generally benefit from more rapid production time and lower overall costs as:

  • They can be produced using fairly standard web development techniques.
  • They are less expensive to market as a single brand property.
  • They enjoy greater speed and flexibility when deploying updates or bug fixes.
  • They have a faster and wider audience reach since one browser fits all.

However, a number of useful features cannot generally be included in mobile sites to their full extent, such as GPS functionality or camera integration; although the W3C is leading a concerted effort among browser vendors, handset manufacturers and operators to introduce such features via browser application programming interfaces (APIs).

There is also the case that some mobile sites may not work properly on some devices or with older browsers and, more importantly, the device needs to have an active data connection to access a mobile site. For consumers, this has traditionally represented a cost disadvantage, particularly when roaming data across countries. With the availability of an offline mode and more regulated roaming charges, at least in Europe, that problem should fade away over time.

Native Apps are far more popular with consumers as they provide a greatly enhanced user experience and generally incorporate all smartphone features like the camera and GPS. Unlike the mobile site, the application remains on the device once it is installed and does not require a data connection to function.

However, the downside of the app also needs to be considered:

  • Apps are developed independently for each particular operating system, so multiple versions are required to enable access from all devices
  • They are more time-consuming to produce and suffer higher development costs
  • They require app store review and approval on launch and with every update, although inclusion in the app stores does provide for organic and promoted discovery
  • Apps require additional promotion and marketing strategies to reach their target audience, and take-up is generally much slower.

While architectural differences clearly exist between native apps and responsive sites, the user experiences provided by both interfaces are increasingly blurred. Many native apps now utilise real-time data connectivity for many of their functions and responsive sites increasingly provide offline modes that can be accessed without network connectivity. In the long term, the current dividing lines between native apps and mobile web will fade as mobile convergence draws the two sides ever closer together.

So, when deciding whether to invest in creating a responsive mobile website or a native mobile application, there's just no right or wrong answer. The choice really does depend on who your audience is and what value your content provides them, what your business requires and the budget it has. What is best for one business may not be best for another. The choice comes down to how well the chosen medium meets the needs of your audience and of your company.

However you approach it, a strong mobile strategy is essential for your business. Many companies are already adopting both a responsive website and a native app, according to their needs and resources. As we increasingly move toward a ‘multi-screen' world, where brands need to engage their users across a variety of media touch points, the same debate will carry on to tablet devices and even Web-connected TVs.

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