Mobile web or Dedicated Apps? What should you use?

on 10th February 2014

(Last updated 11th March 2016)

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Mobile web or Dedicated Apps? What should you use?

If you’re looking to maximise the impact and reach of your digital content, it’s important to consider which mobile platforms are most appropriate for your audience. Some content lends itself better to mobile responsive websites while other types of content or interaction may be best served by a dedicated mobile app.

So how do you decide which is most appropriate for you?

We’ve prepared a quick check list with some of the things worth considering before embarking on one route or the other.

Responsive webMobile application
CostsIf you build it right, the code is the same across all platforms (web, tablet, phone etc), so it’s faster, cheaper and generally easier to maintain.You’ll need a license for each platform where you want to publish the app. You have also to pay for development licenses.
Any updates to the app also require the new version to be re-uploaded to the stores and this update can experience delays in reaching your audience.
ContentAny content change is shown instantly. It can also be easily indexed by search engines. Your app’s content is restricted to the store’s policy. The fact that the content is within the app means that it usually can’t be indexed by search engines.
AvailabilityThe website is always available but an internet connection is always required.Most apps can be run offline but often require internet access when updating content or queries to a database.
Phone featuresThe access to your phone’s physical functionality is very limited.Apps can be granted access to far more of your phone’s physical features like your camera, accelerometer, compass etc. With user opt ins, it can also use data from applications like your contacts or calendars etc. This makes it much easier for your users to connect and interact with your service.
PerfomanceEvery page needs to download all sources (images, styles, javascript, …). so the common assets are loaded multiple times wasting time and data.The app only receives the data that it will need and the network data usage is kept to a minimum. The common assets are packaged within the app.
Ideal forThe content is more important than user’s interaction. Good for marketing, news, upto date information etc.Services that offer more than just content and that benefit from a user’s interactivity is important.
Suitable for this type of apps
  • Corporative sites
  • Personal sites
  • Events site
  • Social sites/services
  • Job boards
  • Newspaper site (Paywalls)

As you can see, there’s no right or wrong here - the nature of your service and content, as well as how much interaction you need from your users is likely to impact your decision. Remember that building a mobile app is likely to need significantly more time to plan and develop and won’t be cheap and (like any other communication channel) it will need to be kept up to date with content, features and enhancements over time.

App building: Native code or web technologies?

If you do decide to build a dedicated mobile app - your next decision will be to work out whether to build it using native code or web technologies like HTML5 and JavaScript.

Previously - the only way to build a decent app for a mobile device was to build it using the native code for the respective operating system.

However, more recently, a whole plethora of new services, frameworks and companies have appeared offering to help you build apps using modern web technologies.

So what’s the deal? Well - to put it bluntly - it’s not easy to write an app using native code - it requires knowledge of harder-to-learn technologies and people with these skills are in high demand. It also takes a lot more time and budget to build in these environments. The benefits are significant - when you write an app dedicated for a particular platform you can target much of it’s built in functionality and know that the interface and code will be optimised to work natively in that environment.

Building apps using platforms like PhoneGap and Titanium Appcelerator have the advantage of being able to use easier-to-learn technologies, faster to develop. As a rule of thumb, you also only need to build your app once and you can then deploy it to many platforms and devices. Sounds good - so what are the downsides? Well - the interface and code are not optimised for the intended platform - so they tend to look less integrated with the device’s OS and they often suffer from performance issues (slower animations and screen redraw). You will also be more limited with which of your phone’s services and features the software can access.

These are popular platforms:

Your decision with which code environment to plump for will likely be determined by how much budget and time you have, as well as how important performance, quality of design and integration with your user’s chosen phone environment is.

What’s your experience with building mobile apps been like? Do you prefer native or responsive?

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