Mobile Web and Native Apps

Mobile Web apps & sites and native apps can look very similar at first-glance, and determining which is most suited to your needs will depend upon a number of factors, including target audiences, available budget, intended purpose and required features.

What's the Difference Between a Mobile Website and a Native App?

Both apps and mobile Web apps & sites are accessed on a handheld devices such as smartphones (e.g., iPhone, Android and Blackberry) and tablets.

A mobile website is similar to any other website: it consists of HTML pages accessed over the Internet (for mobile typically via WiFi, or 3G/4G networks). The obvious characteristic that distinguishes a mobile website from a standard website is the fact that it is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface. The content on a mobile website may also be different, more appropriate for the context. Like any website, mobile websites can display text content, data, images and video, as well features like click-to-call (for dialing a phone number) or location-based mapping.

Mobile websites may be static or database-driven, powered by a back-end management system.

Apps are applications that you download and install onto your mobile device--no browser is required. Users visit device-specific portals such as Apple's App Store, the Android Market, or Blackberry App World in order to find and download apps for their device (for Android phones and Blackberries, you can also download apps outside of the app store). The app may pull content and data from the Internet, in similar fashion to a website, or it may download the content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection.

Which is Better - a Native App or Mobile Web?

When it comes to deciding whether to build a native app or a mobile website, it's going to depend on your goals. If you are developing something interactive, a native app may more appropriate. If you want to deliver mobile-friendly content to the widest possible audience, a mobile website is more appropriate. In some cases you may decide you need both a mobile website and a native app, but it rarely makes sense to build a native app without a mobile Web app or site in place.

Generally speaking, a mobile website should be your first step in developing a mobile Web presence, whereas a native app is useful for developing an application for a very specific purpose that cannot be easily done with a Web browser.

When developing a native app, you want an optimal return on your investment. Avoid building a native app to do something a mobile website can do just as well. However, there really is no struggle between mobile websites and native mobile apps. You may ultimately need both.


Advantages of the Mobile Web vs. Native Apps

The mobile Web has a number of inherent advantages over apps, including broader accessibility, compatibility and cost-effectiveness.

  • Immediacy A mobile website is instantly accessible to users via a browser across a range of devices. Apps require the user to first download and install the app before the content can be viewed.
  • Compatibility A single mobile website can reach users across many different types of mobile devices, whereas native apps require a separate version for each type of device.
  • Upgrading If you want to change the design or content of a mobile website, simply publish the edit and the changes are immediately visible; updating an app requires the updates to be pushed to users, which then must be downloaded in order to upload the app on each type of device.
  • Findability Mobile Web apps & sites are easier to find because their content can be displayed in search results. Visitors using a mobile device can can be sent to your mobile site (using device detection). In contrast, the visibility of apps are largely restricted to manufacturer app stores.
  • Reach Because a mobile website is accessible across platforms and can be easily shared among users, as well as search engines, it has far greater reach capability than a native app.
  • LifeCycle The average shelf-life of an app is generally pretty short, so unless your app is something unique and useful, it's unlikely to remain for long on a user's device. Mobile Web apps & sites on the other hand are always available. When people want a quick hit/lookup, they go to the Web. When they have a recurring use, they tend to turn to an app.
  • Time and Cost Mobile website development is considerably more time and cost-effective than development of a native app, especially if you need to have a presence on different platforms (requiring development of multiple apps).
  • Support and Sustainability The investment considerations of app vs website don't end with the initial launch; properly supporting and developing an app (upgrades, testing, compatibility issues and ongoing development) is more expensive and involved than supporting a website over time.


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When Does an App Make Sense?

Despite the many inherent benefits of the mobile Web, apps are still very popular, and there are a number of specific use scenarios where an app will be your best choice. Generally speaking, if you need one of the following, an app makes sense:

  • Interactivity/Gaming For interactive games, an app is almost always going to be your best choice, at least for the foreseeable future. Touch gestures are harder to on the Web.
  • Regular Usage/Personalization If your target users are going to be using your app in a personalized fashion on a regular basis, then an app provides a great way to do that.
  • Complex Calculations/Reporting If you need something that will take data and allow you to manipulate it with complex calculations, charts or reports an app will help you do that very effectively.
  • Native Functionality/Processing Mobile Web browsers are getting better at accessing certain mobile-specific functions such as click-to-call, SMS and GPS. But if you need to access the camera or need more processing power, an app is better. They offer access to in-built features of the device such as cameras or GPS functionality. Native applications often perform better than other types of apps as they live on the device itself and so you do not experience any delays in waiting for a website to load.
  • Offline Access Native apps allow you to access their content while offline. Web apps are catching up, in this regard, but still lag.


What about Hybrid Apps?

Hybrid apps embed Web pages as part of a native mobile app container, thereby requiring that users have internet access.  Hybrid apps are a way to save resources on front-end development or to leverage existing mobile Web pages and still access commercial app stores. 


What are Cross-Platform Development Tools?

Cross-platform development tools are becoming more popular because they can reduce development time by translating a single programming language into code for multiple native mobile platforms. However, cross-platform tools cannot reproduce all functionality specific to each platform, so some additional customization is often required for each of the native versions produced using cross-platform development.  There are both advantages and disadvantages of using cross-platform development tools, so the benefits should be evaluated based on individual project requirements.


OK, I'm ready.  What Do I Do Now?

Learn about the Mobile Access Review Committee, which will help you submit the Mobile Application Evaluation Form.

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