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Mobile App or Mobile Website, Which Do You Need?

January 2, 2013 By Robert Patrick
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As marketers leveraging the digital world, there will come a time when you will have to advise your clients (internal or external) on whether to build a mobile app or a mobile website, and what the differences between them are. We all know the mobile era is here. The question is, how should your client harness one of the greatest opportunities of our decade?

What Is a Native App?
An application that is built to run on a specific mobile operating system (e.g., iOS or Android). The native app is often called a "mobile app" or just an "app." It does not run inside of a browser, but rather is installed on the device. In order to install an app, you go to your devices App Store (now called the "Google Play Store" on Android). The app store is a pre-installed icon that on the device, so your next digital addition is just one click away.

Pros and Cons of a Native App
One big advantage of native apps is that they appear in the native app store. This can be a very powerful marketing tool. All of the hard work in rounding up your potential customers and having them come to one place has been done for you. This alone is enough to constitute building a native app in some cases. You'll want to take special consideration of the revenue sharing rules that are required when doing in-app purchases though—this can be a deal killer for some marketers.

Native apps can also take full advantage of particular features of that device and its software. For example, you can implement a sophisticated user interface (UI) that would be much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do on a mobile website.

The downside to this flexibility is that the time and effort required to build and maintain a native app is typically higher than a mobile website. There are some cross-platform mobile app solutions that let you build once and run anywhere, such as Titantium by Appcelerator and PhoneGap.

What Is a Mobile Website?
We all know what a website is ... but what makes it "mobile"? Put simply, it is a website that is optimized for viewing on a smaller resolution screen—like the ones you find on mobile devices. If you try to cram a full sized website onto a mobile phone screen, for example, the users have to zoom in and out and move all around to get where they want. A mobile website will have everything laid out nicely so you can easily scroll to find things and links are easy to click.

Pros and Cons of a Mobile Website
A mobile website can typically be brought to market quicker because you don't need to submit it to the app stores for approval and it is developed using widely familiar HTML and CSS languages. Another advantage is that if you build a mobile website once, it can run on nearly all devices with no additional work required (assuming you stick to proper W3C standards). With the emergence of HTML5, the mobile website is more powerful than ever. It can now access nearly all advanced features of mobile devices, like the accelerometer to see if the device is being tilted, and the GPS to see where the device is currently.

One important advantage in choosing a mobile website is that you can always build a native app that "wraps" the mobile website and simply displays the screens you've already built. This is a less expensive variant of building a customized native app and it gets you a place in the app store.

The disadvantage of the mobile website is that you cannot take full advantage of advanced UI features available on the native device, and you don't get priority access to the CPU—so if you want to do something CPU-intensive, a mobile website is not currently the best choice. 

And the Winner is ...
If you are cost conscious or on a short timeframe, then a mobile website is going to be the best fit. If you just want to be in the app store, and you don't care about the speed or advanced UI features available through the native app, you can build an app that "wraps" your mobile website and you get best of both worlds.

If you're looking to build a very customized or CPU-intensive user experience, then you should stick with a mobile app. And don't underestimate the power of being in the app store and having a direct presence on the "deck" of your users' mobile devices.

Robert Patrick is founder and chief architect of Ontario, Cal.-based social media, mobile apps and Web development company PhD Labs. Reach him at


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