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Mobile Apps - Mobile Web Apps.... What's the difference? Which is better for your Business?

2011 was clearly the “year of mobile” with both smart phones and tablet device usage growing rapidly. There are clear arguments for both native applications and mobile websites. While some companies believe that mobile development priorities need to be focused on either a mobile site or a specific application, the reality is that consumers today are using both channels, so an integrated approach is usually the optimal solution.

The “mobile app vs. mobile web app” question is a very real consideration for businesses desiring to establish a mobile presence. Before you can make a decision between the benefits of creating a website optimized for mobile users (mobile web app), or a native mobile application, (mobile app), for your business, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. Both mobile apps and mobile web apps are accessed by a mobile or handheld device such as a smart phone or tablet.  If your business mobile goals are primarily marketing-driven, or if your aim is to deliver content and establish a broad mobile presence that can be easily shared between users and found on search engines, then a mobile web app is the ideal choice. On the other hand, if your goal is interactive engagement with users, or to provide an application that needs to work more like a computer program than a website, then a mobile app will be the best route to pursue. It rarely makes sense to develop a mobile app without already having a mobile website in place.  The exception to this might be in the gaming industry. Generally speaking, a mobile website should be considered your first step in developing a mobile web presence, whereas a mobile app is useful in developing an application for a very specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished with a web browser.

The primary characteristic that distinguishes a mobile web app from a standard website is that it is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface. Like most websites, mobile web apps display content, images and data. They can also contain mobile-specific features such as mapping a location or dialing a telephone number. A mobile web app basically contains some of the content that would be found on a normal version of a website but it’s been optimized to be accessed solely by a mobile device and usually for a specific purpose. A mobile web app is a website which is designed and optimized to perform a set of functions and it formats and optimizes the graphics of that website to perform that function. The same base code can be used to support all mobile devices which ensures cross platform compatibility. You must be connected to the internet to utilize a mobile web app.

A good example of this is CNN mobile. 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 mobile app. Other key features of a mobile web app are that it’s readily available, it can be updated immediately, and it cannot be deleted by the user. 

A recent Harris Interactive study shows there is mounting evidence that smart phone users are more affluent and have a higher disposable income.  And, the most affluent respondents in the survey indicate they have bought and downloaded a mobile application.  A mobile app is software.  It is written using a programming language, compiled into useable software code and distributed freely or sold through marketplaces provided by mobile device vendors such as the Apple Store.  This software is written specifically for mobile devices that will perform a specific task such as play music.  Mobile apps run actively on your mobile device and can work in “Off-line Mode” when not connected to the internet. Although, when you are connected, there is usually added functionality.

Native applications have better functionality because they use the features of the smart phones, such as the camera, the user’s address book, and geo-location. Utilizing these features can offer a richer user experience. Native mobile apps get good visibility with consumers because they are distributed through the phone manufacturer’s app store. This also means they have a built in revenue model, since consumers often pay to download the app. The disadvantage of native mobile apps is that it can restrict the number of users that can be reached if the app is not compatible with all mobile devices.  It also requires development time because different apps need to be coded for different hardware platforms. Also, third party approval and software release schedules can be another barrier.

Mobile website development is considerably more time and cost-effective than development of a native mobile app. But there are circumstances where a native mobile app is the most appropriate choice, particularly where user experience is of the utmost importance. 

There is evidence to suggest that browser based mobile web apps will grow faster than the native app market; which may bode well for a short term strategy.  But, I would definitely keep an eye on the market and keep pace with native mobile apps for a long term strategy. Having an expert evaluate your business needs and goals would be the wisest first move in deciding which is best for your business today and to plan a long term mobile strategy.   EricksonGroce|Agency has the experts on staff waiting to advise you.


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Brian Groce is the Senior Technical Partner of Erickson Groce Agency. He has been helping clients in Houston and other cities across the nation optimize their Web sites for higher placement and better ROI.
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