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Web Applications vs. Mobile Websites

As a continuation from Co-op Highlights 6, I wanted to explore the differences between web applications and mobile websites a little further.  Previous to the Database Architect meeting last week, I had a pretty vague understanding of ‘apps’ and mobile websites.  So, I did a little research on the two.

I found 2 great articles about the differences and pros and cons of both web applications and mobile websites.  I’m sure there are 1,000 more articles out there, but these 2 seemed pretty straightforward.

Article 1 – http://www.hswsolutions.com/services/mobile-web-development/mobile-website-vs-apps/

Article 2 – http://www.adaptistration.com/blog/2013/04/30/understanding-the-difference-between-apps-and-mobile-websites-2013/

Here’s what I found:

Web applications and mobile websites are both accessed by a handheld device, most commonly a smartphone (iPhone, Android, or Blackberry), but also tablets.

A mobile website would be very similar to your organization’s website, complete with HTML pages and links between those pages.  These would be accessed over the Internet (for smartphones, this could also be accessed through a data connection like 3G or 4G networks).  Obviously, because of the small screen size, your website would need some modifications to make it user-friendly for a smartphones.  A touch-screen interface is also a consideration when compared with a typical mouse-click on a full-size website.  Mobile websites can contain text content, data, images, and even video.  Another feature would be a click-to-call option or location-based mapping.

One example would be a person who pulls up your mobile website for your organization and wants to call the organization for more information.  With the click-to-call feature, there is no ‘write down the phone number and then call’ type action.  Location-based mapping could use GPS to pick up the location of the person accessing the mobile website and then display the location (maybe a pizza place or the nearest store) based the person’s location.  Pretty handy.

Web applications, or apps as they are commonly known, are a little different.  An app is an application (a module or object, to use different, but similar words) that is downloaded and installed on your handheld device (smartphone or tablet) instead of being accessed through a web browser.  An app could contain similar information to a mobile website (contact information, location information, general text describing your organization, etc), but it could also contain the ability to track certain pieces of information (maybe calories eaten, steps walked, etc) or it could be a way for the organization to push (send would be another word) information to the end-user.  Interactivity is a consideration, as the web application could allow paths for two-way communication between the end-user and the organization.

Both articles that I read indicated that a mobile website would be a first option or step, while an app would be something possibly added later for a specific purpose.

Mobile Websites

There are a number of benefits to consider with a mobile website.  Some of these pros include:

  • Broad access – instantly accessible using a web browser (while an app needs to be downloaded and installed first)
  • Compatibility – a mobile website can be accessed by many different handheld devices without worrying about developing different versions for different types of devices (the big example is iPhones vs. Androids)
  • Upgrading Content – mobile websites can be updated easily and the new information would be immediately available to the end-user (while an app would need to have an update downloaded and possibly re-installed for the new information to become available)
  • Cost-effectiveness – mobile websites are less costly, both in terms of time and money, to develop and maintain; developing and supporting a web app is much more expensive (considering developing for multiple platforms [iPhone, Android, Blackberry], upgrades, testing, compatibility, etc)
  • Shareability – mobile websites can be shared easily between people, just be sending the URL link in a text message or email (an app cannot be shared in this way)
  • Findability – mobile websites can be easily found because their pages would be displayed in search results (for example – search for the nearest pizza place) while apps are typically found via the app stores.  Another benefit to using a mobile website is that it is available whenever the user requests it, while an app may only be useful to the user for a short period of time.  I’m thinking of the Global Leadership Summit app from the August 2013 Willow Creek conference.  People attending the conference were encouraged to download the app to find additional information about the speakers, order resources, and complete surveys during the conference.  Once the conference finished, there is not really a compelling reason to keep the app on your smartphone.

Web Applications (Apps)

There are some instances when developing a web application (or app) makes sense.  And, maybe, an app for your organization only focuses on one part of the organization (such as a budget tool), instead of trying to represent your entire organization.  Web applications would be most efficient for providing interactivity or gaming, regular personalized usage, complex calculations or reporting (possibly financial, banking, investments), or if you needed to provide offline access to content (no network or wireless connection required).

Additional benefits to developing web applications include the fact that apps use programming code native to the platform and can result in higher performance.  There is also a name/brand recognition associated with the app that could increase distribution (‘it’s an Android app’), and apps can utilize some of the native functionality of a smartphone, such as the camera and gyroscope.  Apps can be an ideal solution if you need to deliver specific content to a specific audience. 

Web Application, Mobile Website, OR Responsive Mobile Website

There is a third option!  A Responsive Mobile Website takes the best of typical mobile websites and integrates the responsiveness

A responsive mobile website acts the same regardless of what device is used, so just one platform is required and is less expensive overall to develop and maintain.  It is searchable to anyone through  a web browser and can be easily shared with others.  There are no manual updates; content is updated and visible the next time a user accesses the mobile website.  Responsive mobile websites can be developed with database-driven capabilities, so that specific content is available to the user based on membership, preferences, or location.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this responsive design, including not being able to access a smartphone’s native functionality (like the camera and gyroscope) and not being able to connect your app with the status or reputation of a third party app distributor (name/brand recognition for Android or iPhone).

Consumers have also displayed a preference for mobile website interfaces for things such as shopping and searching.


At first glance, there appeared to be just 2 choices, web applications or mobile websites.  However, a third option surfaced and seems to be a hybrid of the two – the responsive mobile website.  Considering your goals is an important consideration here.  If your organization wants to share information with a broad audience or enhance your marketing efforts, a mobile website is a good choice.  If your goals are primarily interactivity, complex calculations, or offline content, then an application may be the way to go.

However, if you’d like to provide your audience with robust content that is easy to access and easy to share, regardless of the type of device, and can be tailored to a user’s preferences or membership level, then a Responsive Mobile Website may be the best solution.

2 thoughts on “Web Applications vs. Mobile Websites

  1. Great research Kim! Thank you for sharing your findings. Mark Reineck from Nth Generation has three UC co-op students working with him and they are going to create a mobile app for the Vine System. If your schedule permits, it would be great if you could participate in some of the meetings.


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