Should you create a mobile website or mobile app for your business?

If you are considering setting up an online mobile presence, you have 2 options—mobile website or mobile app. Which one should you go for?

For those who are uninitiated to the difference between the two, a mobile website is basically a website that is specially designed for the small screens (e.g. in smart-phones) and/or touch-screens. Mobile apps are basically software that is downloaded and installed on these mobile computing devices.

Today’s modern web browser technology is so advanced that web sites can exhibit characteristics of conventional software (e.g. real-time interaction with the user, windows, buttons, drag-and-drop, menu bars). In fact, it is Google’s vision to see that one day, all software runs through the web browser—that means all your data, files and the software itself reside on external servers on the Internet. As an example, using Google Docs, you can run spreadsheets, word-processors and presentation software entirely through the web-browser. Hence, there should be no difference in theory between a mobile website and a mobile app from the end-user’s point of view. If the reality reflects theory, then it is clear that you should not even consider developing mobile apps at all. That’s because for mobile websites,

  1. There’s no downloading and installation involved.
  2. They’re compatible with every types mobile device platform (e.g. iPhone, Android), which means you don’t have to develop for each platform separately.
  3. They don’t have to be updated on the mobile device.

In other words, it is much easier and cheaper to set up mobile websites.

The reality though, is not that ideal. The fact is this: mobile websites are not as fast and responsive as mobile apps. This problem is exacerbated by inferior Internet broadband infrastructure, which will result in mobile websites to be perceived as being unreliable. That is the reason why Google is so supportive of Australia’s NBN (fibre-to-the-node) infrastructure project. The better the Internet broadband infrastructure is, the closer the gap between reality and theory.

Now, remember what I wrote in the previous article, “How does a half-baked computer (Apple iPad) become a roaring success?”? There is a reason why half-baked computers (e.g. tablets) are far more desirable and popular than fully functional PCs (e.g. netbooks). The lesson from that article also applies to the question of whether to develop mobile websites or mobile apps (if you have not read that article, it is highly recommended that you read it now). Yes, it is cheaper to develop mobile websites to cover a much wider range of mobile device platforms. But if at the end of the day, you don’t give what the consumers want, they will not use it.

But does it mean that you should never ever consider developing mobile websites? No, mobile apps can sometimes be an overkill. For example, turning a blog into a mobile app is probably overkill. The reason is because consumers are pretty much passive when it comes to reading blogs. A mobile app is not going to enhance their experience that much. On the other hand, if there is going to be a lot of back-and-forth transactions and interactions with your customer, then a mobile app is necessary to ensure a great user experience. The eBay app is a great example of when it makes sense to implement a mobile app.

In short, the strategic choice between developing a mobile website or mobile app for your business should boil down to one basic consideration: the user experience. Judging from Apple’s roaring success with the iPad, the user experience trumps functionality. Therefore, it is better to have a mobile app that has less functionality but much better user experience than a mobile website that has more functionality but atrocious user experience.

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