Mobile Website vs. Mobile App: The Deep Dive Edition

Have you ever thought you maybe know a topic, but weren’t quite sure? It’s happened to me.

Even if you did know the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app, you may not really get it.

not a mobile phone, but a bunch of phone booths on a moving vehicle

Not really a mobile phone. Just two phone booths, on a lorry.

So, I’ll explain, beginning with the lowdown, and then getting to the actual throwdown.

The lowdown: What is the difference between a mobile website and a regular website?

The different screen size requires trade-offs. Optimizing for mobile means prioritizing what a user must see, and minimizing the rest.  A mobile website is adjusted in its look and format so that some of the content and features of a website appear, and other content or features are “tucked underneath” words and pictures, or eliminated.

Typically, a user can see and grasp at max five to seven lines of text, or a few buttons, in a small handheld. One single column is ideal for a device that is perhaps one-eighth the size of a laptop.

Creating a mobile website often involves a complete re-coding of your primary website. In addition, the mobile website may or may not be written in the same language as your main website. For example, your website may be in HTML/PHP/CSS, but you may choose to upgrade the mobile website to HTML5, to add the glam factor.

In short, creating a mobilized site will set you back in time and money. For that reason, we (at Mojo40) have yet to get a customized mobile site. Instead, we are using a WP plug-in for mobile functionality, as an interim measure!

The throwdown: What is the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app?

A mobile app — also referred to as a native application – is technically quite different from a mobile website. If most information can now be presented with a mobile website, then why create a mobile app to promote, for example, a restaurant location service?

According to one source, organizations that offer both a mobile website and native apps typically see 4 to 5 times more use with the native apps over the mobile.

Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Some organizations only need one; others may need both.

bicyclist and motorcyclist both looking at their mobile phones

Rising to the mobile challenge in more ways than one.

Seven considerations for deciding whether to go with the mobile website or native application route

1. Claim and control your message
For most, it’s easier to find a native app than a mobile website, which is typically buried in your browser bookmarks. If you think in terms of your competition, would you like to leave the door open so that they steal your audience, by providing a message that is easier to find?

2. Richer user experience
A native application can feature highly interactive experiences that surpass what’s possible with a mobile website. The native application can use a whole library of user interface controls supported by the device that can be combined to create more compelling content. You want your user to get addicted to your game or broadcast, right?

3. Application speed
Apps are primarily built with the idea that you will be on mobile coverage; wi-fi is almost secondary. The only speed limitations are the limitations of the device, not the limitations of the connection or congestion on the network. (Tablets are an exception.) This allows the native app to run quickly. It’s almost as if the information is “pre-installed,” although technically it is not.

Faster speed creates better user experience. Do you prefer waiting for the browser to open in order to see your bank account, or having your bank’s app pop the trunk and let you in right away?

4. Cellular data coverage
If you are in an area without full 3G/4G coverage, a mobile website will be of little benefit. To illustrate: A friend administers a program for community workers who spread out to impoverished neighborhoods. She asked for recommendations for a tool that could help her troops translate from Spanish to English. I advised that she needed an app for that, not a web-based tool. Network coverage is scarce in poorer areas.

5. Richer, more intuitive maps
One of the most popular uses for smartphones and tablets is for a local search. However, a mobile website that uses Google’s online mapping services can only have 5 different icon types, or it must use a slower method for building the map. Without getting too technical, this makes it difficult for the consumer to pinpoint what they need.

map of Europe too big to decipher

Getting a rich mapping experience involves lots of touches.

By contrast, a native application allows more dynamic mapping with successive interactions for each point of interest. Think about the last time you searched for a neighborhood venue. Did you keep pressing the Zoom-in feature? Me too.

6. Multimedia content
Certain types of apps use lots of pictures, audio, and video to convey their message. The cliché holds true: A picture paints a thousand words. Ordinarily, if you were trying to sell a travel location or convince your team’s fans to follow their games, you would include lots of rich media. However, rich media takes up a ton of space. In some cases, 95% of an application’s size could be rich media. As a user successively hits a button, more and more content needs to stream, slowing the entire process.

But waiting is cause for rejection. In effect, companies with rich media on a mobile website choose to limit what they put up, in order to avoid ticking off users.

The opposite holds true for an app. A native app has the images stored locally, allowing almost instantaneous display of a large number of images and video. So, when video streams from the network, as the number of network users increases, the video becomes wonky. When video comes from a native app, it plays much better as long as the device itself has plenty of storage.

7. Reliability
What about airplane use? You cannot get a web-enabled site up in airport mode. Once a mobile app is installed, it works regardless of the hordes tapping into the surrounding data network or even the restriction of airplane mode.

The final point: Research shows that because the app experience is easier, faster, and has more “magic,” users tend to go to sites that are already downloaded onto their phone, rather than sites in their browser. It is a reinforcing advantage. Once they have the app, they use it more.

If you want a native app, how much will that cost?

I’ll give you a ballpark. Let’s say you want a simple app that will live on the iPhone and the iPad. It will have a geo-locational aspect to it, and have some user interactivity. A basic two-device app, fully tested for stability and reliability, with a straightforward creative design made here and development done offshore, might start at $15,000 to $25,000 and take 8 to 12 weeks to build.

The marketplace has so many different devices, however, that your business goals may not be served without a more customized, sophisticated native application.

mobile phones from around the world

Is "non standard" an adequate description of the marketplace?

Keep in mind the self-service platforms where you can build a web app yourself. In fact, there are tons of crappy apps out there, and if your team is not experienced, you may be in over your head. It is essential to get an app that doesn’t shut down within seconds of launching on your tablet. For that, turn to the experts.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0, JohnGreyTurner, Simona K, osde8info, KhE

Do you get the difference between mobile websites and native apps, now? If so, how does it feel to build mojo? If not, what needs clarifying?

MuCash lets you make donations quicky in increments as small as a single penny. By leaving a small donation every time you find something of value on Mojo40, you can help me (Diane) keep creating content like this for you to enjoy.
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  • Wendy Hanlan

    This is great stuff Diane – as always you’ve written an incredibly resourceful article. I would love to learn more about the subject of mobile marketing – keep the information coming!

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Thanks Wendy, in fact, I was thinking about making a series of posts on mobility, since there is a ton of interest in this. For example, how many small businesses know what percentage of prospects shut down the site, because they can’t see it well in their cellphone? Businesses need to know that, and plenty more, in order to make smart decisions.

  • Maya GoldGirl

    I love the gory details for the non-technical crowd. You read my mind!

  • Tim Hayden

    The most crucial mobile investment any company or brand can make today is in a mobile-friendly website.

    Just behind text-messaging, the most popular thing “we” do with our mobile phones is search using the mobile web and tools such as Yelp!, Google Maps and other utilitarian apps.

    Don’t fret over making your current website “mobile friendly”, though. Know that when visitors use a handset to find you, they are looking for specific “actionable” content, NOT information as they would while surfing.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Tim, that is a great point… thinking through how to offer “actionable” advice, and in particular, how to be found… on sites like Yelp! and TripAdvisor and similar… indeed, I just got back from an R&R, and used my own mobile lots to find places to eat nearby, etc

  • conflux

    This is some good stuff! As much as I find apps compelling, especially on the iPad and now the TouchPad, I see apps as a step backwards (although, unfortunately, they are here to stay!). The web, and eventually, the cloud, have done a lot to free us from platform dependency meaning that with a simple browser, it doesn’t matter if you were on a Mac, Windows based machine or some other operating system (OS); similarly, you care not how the website is hosted. Now, apps are taking use back to machine and even a specific OS version dependency which, in my opinion, is a step backward.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Very interesting point of view, I never thought of it that way but you are absolutely right… with the proliferation of devices and operating system, the market is more confusing than ever.

  • Mktg Maven

    Thanks for providing the basics for the non-technical audience, complete with examples. Very helpful!!

  • denny hagel

    Wow! I had no idea! Thanks for the education!

  • Jennifer Bennett

    Great information here! I have heard that very soon, the majority of people will be looking at our websites and the Internet via mobile devices and really, we need to make sure that our sites are built for that change! Thanks for sharing!

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      You’re welcome. Indeed, the future is upon us, as everyone tunes into their mobile with each “unfilled” moment and spec of time.

  • Lenore N.

    Great information that really serves as a resource. I had not considered any of these points, but will now.

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