How to choose between a mobile app and a mobile website?

April, 18 2012

Choosing between a mobile app and a mobile website can be a difficult decision because there are many factors to consider, and the idea of a mobile website may feel overwhelming.

However, here's a checklist that will help you decide whether a mobile app or mobile website is appropriate for your project. You will soon realize than a phone app is rarely what you need. 

Phone App vs Mobile Site Checklist

Before agonizing over any decision, you must go through this checklist to find out whether a mobile site is out of question. Here it is:

  • do you need access to phone functions such as camera and video, or call info? Yes => phone app only.
  • do you need graphic card access for games? Yes => phone app only
  • do you need any type of interactivity that a web app canâ��t deliver without requiring a (traditionnally) flash component? Yes => phone app only
  • you do not need any network access at all?  Yes => phone app only.
  • you do not need access to any phone functions mentioned above, but require light network access to pull up content? Yes => consider a mobile website
  • your content will change very often and getting the new content onto all phones is a must have? Yes => consider a mobile website
  • you need social media sharing of your content, or of user generated content? Yes => consider a mobile website.
  • you have very little money? Yes => consider a mobile website
The above is a rough guideline, but hopefully it will help in your decision.
 
A phone app can always pull data from the network, which is why the above checklist recommends the use of a mobile website instead of requiring it. Should you need to pull data from the network, remember you must pull content from somewhere, which is usually a web server. This means you have to deploy a mobile app and a website that your mobile app pulls data from - which increases the costs of your phone app project altogether.

One programming language vs many

A mobile website is "served" to the phone web browser, and requires only one programming language: only that of the website technology (PHP, ASP.NET, JSP, etc). Only one cost, that of making the mobile site, and it's easier than it sounds since the technology is very well known... after all, it's all just HTML and Javascript on the mobile browser.

On the other hand, a phone app dictates the following:

  • an iphone (ipad) app must be written in Objective C (and usually requires the programmer to have a Mac). You can write it in Java, C/C++ or use Flash CS5, but that is not easy task.
  • an android phone app must be written in Java. You can write it in C# thanks to the Mono project, but that won't be easy either.
  • a blackberry, hm. just a wrong choice altogether. Avoid.

Most likely you will have to either implement your app in two languages and double your costs, or jimmy rig your app so that it works well on both. The latter is expensive, and limits you to the common subset of functionality on each device, to some extent.

The winner? a mobile website.

Target a device

Because of the programming restrictions described above, and according to your budget, you must decide which of the  platforms, iphone or android, you wish to target. Given that android and Apple share the market roughly at 50/50 these days, it may be a costly decision.

On the other hand, a mobile website will work on all phones, the old blackberry included, and it will also work on a regular desktop computer. Believe or not, this last point is vital.

The winner? a mobile website.

Deployment cycle

A mobile website has no deployment cycle. You create the website once, select a CMS (Content Management System) such as the LVSYS CMS which allows you to edit a website for mobile and desktop devices from one central location, requiring no additional investment to make your site mobile.

You can update your mobile site anytime, anywhere and the new content or functionality is live immediately.

On the other hand, any phone app must be published on an app directory, which requires approval cycles from Apple or Google, with various delays involved. Each time you update your phone app, you must deploy the updates as well. Furthermore, only the end user can initiate the download of updates of your phone app, which forces you to maintain compatibility between old versions and new versions of your app when they access remote content. It also means end users may rely on old outdated content.

The winner? Undoubtedly a mobile website.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the fine line between selecting a phone app or a mobile site as the technology of choice for your project boils down to the functions your project absolutely requires access to, use of network, ease of deployment, need for live updates, and your budget.

We welcome your comments.

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