Mobile App or Mobile Web Site? A look at Pros and Cons

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 5 min read

When creating marketing initiatives for our clients we are often asked what is the difference between a mobile app and a mobile website. That is an easy explanation but what about when asked to speak on statistical pros and cons?

That led us to a report from Taptu, a well respected, mobile search company, who indicate that the future of the Mobile Web is likely to be dominated by cross-platform browser-based mobile web sites—rather than apps built specifically for iPhone, Android, or any other platform. Such “Mobile Touch Websites” are touchscreen-compatible, with finger-friendly layouts and lightweight pages that are fast to load over less-than-blazing cellular networks.

Taptu expects the browser-based mobile web market to grow much faster than the app market over the next five years and predicts that “the Mobile Touch Web will approach the quality of user experience of Mobile Touch Apps across all the app categories except for games.”

It seems that commerce and social services are taking more advantage of mobile web browsers than gaming and entertainment providers. According to the report, 19% of the mobile sites measured were Shopping & Services sites; compared to 3.6% in the same category in the App Store. Conversely, just 0.8% of mobile sites were gaming, compared to 18% of apps in the App Store. Sites in the ‘Entertainment’ category are similarly scarce.

This could simply be because many commercial products and services do not really fit into Apple’s iTunes content-oriented billing system. It is also reasonable to assert that gaming and entertainment content is better delivered as an app because apps deliver a much richer, more interactive gaming experience than the relatively simple games to be found on the Mobile Web.

Two more Taptu observations worth noting:

  • It’s getting easier and easier to create rich touch screen user experiences with the browser without having to create platform-specific apps.
  • The increasing usage of open standard APIs is enabling Mobile Web developers to access deeper device functions such as geolocation.

The main alternative to fine-tuning your site to umpteen mobile browsers is, of course, the app. Apps are installed on mobile devices, they run locally making use of the hardware, operating system and user friendly interface of the device, and they only connect to the internet for retrieving data from a database system in the cloud (on a remote server). Apps also instantly claim screen space. Yes, it’s pretty easy to bookmark a favorite website (or even have it appear as an icon on your home screen) – but easy doesn’t mean that users are going to do it.

With an app icon on permanent display, you have automatically staked your claim.

Although the mobile site developer admits that there are some cases where an app would be the smarter option (e.g. businesses that have a very large and dedicated user base, or solutions that utilize special device capabilities that can’t be accessed via the web), it asserts that “In the majority of cases, businesses and individuals will gain more from going down the mobile web route.”

So the argument continues – and there may never be a clear-cut winner, because as many bleeding-edge marketers are concluding, it depends on your targeted markets and your marketing objectives. Although the surging wave of iphone, ipad and Android users has certainly made the world very “app-happy,” the web “on-the-go” is not dead yet. Case in point: a 2009 study found that iPhones represented only about 1.5% of the mobile market, yet they still captured about 33% of the worldwide mobile web traffic –and a whopping 50% of the mobile web traffic in the U.S.!

Clearly, it’s important to consider the relative merits of each medium, as was done quite concisely and insightfully by this DudaMobile article. For example, mobile apps:

  • Need to be developed for each platform
  • Don’t achieve critical success unless they’re at or near the top of their category
  • Can take advantage of all device capabilities
  • Require the approval of each device’s “app store police”
  • Requires users to download and (possibly) purchase
  • App stores charge fees for publishing or certifying
  • App stores take a cut of the sales (30% for Apple, 20% for RIM)
  • Locally running app code can ensure high performance
  • Offline browsing is possible

Whereas mobile websites:

  • Require no download or installation
  • Can utilize “common platform” solutions to help streamline site development
  • Can be found and accessed via search engines, links and blogs
  • Let you link from your mobile site to other websites
  • Your customer universe is anyone with Internet access
  • Can incorporate GPS, offline data storage, and video with browsers that support HTML
  • Easier to support and maintain (developer has complete site access)
  • No revenue sharing
  • Performance depends on how well the site has been built and also upon the mobile network’s speed
  • Offline browsing is enabled by HTML5, but it’s not supported by all such devices (and many phones don’t support HTML5)