Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps

You probably already have an Internet website and are now considering to create a mobile website. One of the main questions you might be debating with is whether to create a mobile application (app) or a mobile website. There has been quite a bit of discussion on the web regarding the pros and cons of each of these options.

mobile apps vs mobile web

With the huge buzz around Apple’s App Store and Blackberry’s App World it seems that mobile applications are taking over, but is an app the right solution for everyone? Doesn’t it seem like we have gone back fifteen years and once again being required to install packaged software? An interesting research by Pinch Media shows that less than 5% of downloaded apps continue to be used 20 days after being downloaded.

There are some cases where an app makes more sense as for example: businesses who have a very large and dedicated user base (e.g . Facebook) or solutions that requires special capabilities of the mobile device that are not accessible through the web (e.g. gaming).

But in the majority of the cases businesses and individuals will gain more from going through the mobile web route. The development costs will be lower, the potential market size will be bigger and it will be much easier for people to find your site by using any search engine.

Before making a decision several criteria should be considered. Below I summarized some of the main points to help you make the right decision for your business. Feel free to comment or add to my list.

Mobile App 

Application designed to run on a specific mobile device –  download and installation required

Mobile Website 

Website created specifically for mobile devices – accessible through mobile browsers, no download or installation required

Portability Needs to be developed for each platform (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Palm and the list goes on…) Common platform – some solutions (e.g. DudaMobile) enable you to develop once and run on all web-enabled mobile devices
Hyper Links It is possible to link to an app but since most users will not have the app installed, the most effective way is to link to the download page for this app. It is possible to link from an app externally to other websites Possible to provide links to different pages on your mobile site and to link from your mobile site to other websites
Discoverability Most apps don’t achieve critical success and fade into the world of anonymity. You will need a very well defined strategy to break into the top list for your category in order to make it (AdWhirl estimates $1875 per day advertising budget can get you there , Pinch Media says the impact of being in the top 100 is a daily increase of 2.3x in the number of users) People can find your site by using any of the search engines and via links from other websites, blogs, Twitter and links embedded in emails. A good marketing strategy can definitely increase the number of visitors, especially if it is viral.
Distribution & Market Size At the mercy of the App Store police in regards to availability of your app and approvals to get it in. Requires users to download – huge barrier to entry. 

Limited to the number of users on the released platform

Anyone on the web has access to your mobile site
Usage of Device Capabilities Able to use all device capabilities (GPS, camera, voice, RFID, address book, calendar, etc.) It is possible to use features like GPS, offline data storage and video from within mobile websites using the latest mobile browsers which support HTML5. Access from the web to some native capabilities of mobile devices is still limited due to security and privacy concerns (e.g. access to address book or calendar)
Supportability & Upgradeability Difficult to support and maintain after app is downloaded. Every new release with bug fixes requires to go through the entire approval process of the app store

After new version of application is placed in the store, it requires all existing users to upgrade in order to get it- big barrier

Easier to support and maintain as developer has complete access to the site 

No need to upgrade, all users see the latest version

Entry Costs some app stores charge extra fees for publishing or certifying your app (Apple charges developers $99 and enterprises $299, RIM charges $200 ) None
Revenue Share Need to share sales revenue with the app stores (Apple takes 30%, RIM takes 20%) It’s all yours
User Experience Full control of User Interface Limited to the capabilities of HTML/CSS. User experience will largely depend on how the mobile website is designed
Performance Able to achieve high performance through app code that runs locally on the device Performance will largely depend on how the mobile website is designed
Offline Browsing Possible HTML5 enables it to some extent, but is supported only on selected devices

33 thoughts on “Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps

  1. I really hope we can start to see the mobile marketplace converge in the next few years. I think apps are temporary. Even though they are cool and can sometimes provide a better UX, I think that once certain programming languages (Flash) can be processed and displayed on smartphones that mobile sites will be able to present some sexier content. At the same time, as HTML5 becomes more widely used we may see some additional advances. In the meantime, the market will be somewhat silo-ed.

  2. Hi! thanks for your comparing! but it don’t understand your argument: “There are some cases where an app makes more sense as for example: businesses who have a very large and dedicated user base (e.g . Facebook)”

    why shoukd it be a reason to create a native app, just because there is a large user base? could you explain it to me? :)

    Thanks and regards,

    • Hi Robert,

      You are right, I should have elaborated more on this point.
      What I meant to say is that if as a business you see a large demand for consumption of your content via mobile and your feel that you are not able to create the experience you want via the web, then it might make sense to create a mobile app. This is especially relevant for businesses with an existing large and dedicated user base who is already set on how they like to consume their content.


  3. Hi Itali,
    thanks for your reply. i think it could be true in some cases, but in think especially facebook is bad example. Just compare the native app and the iphone/webkit-optimized webapp. i think there is no reason that they provide such a good experience through their native app and left their optimized version behind.

    now, while android-based phones become more important on the mobile space, there is no good android-facebook-app. But iPhone and Android are using webkit, and with webkit they could make the best possible web-app user-experience, that is possible on a mobile browser. so in my opionen it doesn’t really make sense, that they only provide the good user-experience for iphone and not for all powerful phones through the webbased-app.

    sorry, my english is really bad, but i hope you understand what i mean….

    now the real problem: facebook doesn’t provide a good app for android-phones

    • Hi Robert,

      I completely agree with you, there are many web-enabled devices out there and companies should make the effort to provide a good mobile experience for those devices.
      I believe Facebook is aware of the shortcomings of their website on non-iphone devices. According to TechCrunch about a quarter of Facebook users connect via mobile devices.
      Have you tried accessing from your Android device the website ? I haven’t seen how it looks on Android, but this is the same site that iphone users see.

      In any case the reason I believe that companies are still focused on iphone apps are:
      1. The Buzz affect – everybody is talking about it, so you have to be there
      2. Although iPhone devices only represent today about 1.5% of the mobile market, they still capture about 33% of the worldwide mobile web traffic and even 50% of the mobile web traffic in the US.

      Note that it is my belief that as better phones hit the market (20 android phones by end of this year) the arguments listed above will weaken and companies will have to focus on providing great usability across all mobile devices.


      p.s. I understood everything that you said, your English and arguments are perfectly clear.

  4. A small offtopic comment on this, Im using the google chrome webbrowser, but it looks like your blog is not displaying correctly… Just to let you know. Regards.

  5. You got some nice tips here, I am glad I found you. Making your mobile phone different is not just about ring tones, it is also about it’s video, or other media features. Do you have any other tips for that?

  6. Nice blog, I was doing a little web snooping and happened onto your blog, I was wondering if you knew your blog is rendering unusually in the K-mellon browser. I will see most of it but the pictures are somehow out of wallop. Probably not a big deal since basically nobody uses it any longer but I am old school and still run it.

  7. important post , really good perspective on the subject and very well written, this certainly has put a spin on my day, numerous thanks from the USA and retain up the good work

  8. Doing some browsing and noticed your website appears a bit messed up in my K-meleon internet browser. But luckily hardly anyone uses it anymore but you may want to look into it.

  9. Nice level of information here. There is so much data around about this subject that sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees but you have pitched this at just the right level so that the lay person can understand – thank you!

  10. I’ve been reading a few posts and really and enjoy your writing. I’m just starting up my own blog and only hope that I can write as well and give the reader so much insight.

  11. Thank you for the sound critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research about this. I am very happy to see such great information being shared freely out there.

  12. @Dan Lubetsky, I think you’re right. Apps are temporary… unless there’s some sort of evolution of the app that brings them closer to mobile websites. Once HTML and CSS advance even further, the capabilities of browsers to interpret newer technologies advances, and the speeds of the mobile connections increases then apps will no longer need to exist.

  13. I am really enjoying reading your well written articles. It looks like you spend a lot of effort and time on your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

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