Mobile App or Mobile Website?

For most companies, the question no longer is if they should have a mobile presence, it’s which approach to take: mobile (native) apps or a mobile website.

Native apps are the applications downloaded onto your phone or tablet from an app store, while mobile websites built using HTML5 are reached via an Internet browser and optimized for mobile devices.

To understand which is most suitable for your business, it’s important to first understand the needs of your user. If your user is expecting interactivity and a high degree of functionality, a native app is probably best. If your business simply needs an affordable way to be discovered by mobile search engines, a mobile website may fit the bill. Then again, maybe your business needs both. Let’s look at the strengths of each.

Native Apps
Last year, comScore data released a study showing that users spend 82 percent of their time on their smartphones and tablets using apps, and just 18 percent on mobile browsing. Clearly, users are familiar with and prefer apps.

Native apps often are chosen by companies interested in creating user interfaces that are highly responsive and easy to use. Good native apps streamline and improve existing business workflows, enabling companies to save time, reduce cost and increase revenue. The apps often take the place of paper-based or manual processes.

Native apps also are preferred by businesses needing secure data transactions, such as banks and other financial services companies, and those needing to access the core functions of the mobile device. This includes apps that tap into the device’s camera, maps, GPS and other functions. Finally, native apps can function without an Internet connection, making them a good choice if connectivity is questionable.

Mobile Websites
Companies that want to give users access to content for marketing purposes, or provide access to reporting systems that have responsive back end systems, may consider building a mobile website.

Mobile websites also are useful for companies that need to be found by users searching the Web on mobile devices. Mobile users are automatically directed to your mobile website. Some companies opt for a hybrid approach: using a mobile website to take advantage of Web searches, then prompting customers to download their mobile app.

Where to begin
In the past, some companies started their mobile strategy with a mobile website and then moved to a native app. A well-known company that took this road was Facebook and they soon learned that the mobile Web experience wasn’t what their users expected. Facebook customers demanded a more agile user interface than HTML5 could deliver.

To avoid making a mistake, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Do our users expect a rich, engaging experience? If your users demand a streamlined interface that quickly serves up the information they need, a native app will be quicker and more intuitive.
  2. Does your app need to use the mobile device’s camera, calendar, address book, photo library, etc.? If your app needs to seamlessly tap into the functions and features of mobile devices, a mobile app is the best way to go. Users will feel like the app belongs on the phone. HTML5 is advancing in this area, but is not close to the experience users expect.
  3. Will the app be used in areas with limited, slow or no connectivity? Mobile websites require a user to have an Internet connection. The responsiveness of the Web app is dependent on the end user’s current wireless connection. Often this makes for a poor user experience as the Web app waits to relay information back and forth on a slow connection. HTML5 offers limited offline storage and other capabilities, but it doesn’t compare to the ability of a native app to function fully offline and then sync up data behind the scenes when connectivity is available again.
  4. Will the app need to receive notifications to perform an action or task? Notifications -“ those messages apps display on the mobile device -“ are huge for cementing user engagement. They literally reach out and pull the user back into the app. Native apps can deliver notifications seamlessly, while mobile Web can’t.
  5. Do you plan to connect your app to external devices? If you plan to use mobile devices to interface with equipment, such as automating a manufacturing process, a native app is probably your best bet. Native apps can connect directly to a device using Wi-Fi, other network connections, Bluetooth or even through a serial or USB cable.

My company, Lextech, can help your decision with NativeVsWeb, an app that helps you determine whether your app concept should be built as a native or web app. It is available free in the Apple App Store or at

Finally, resist the temptation to quickly put up a mobile website or rush to develop a native app. The wrong approach can detract from the company, waste resources and deliver disappointing results. Mobile apps can have a big impact on businesses, but only if you’re building the right app for the right reason. Also, since many people use mobile apps as the primary way they interact with companies, the app experience drives your brand perception. If you want to show the quality of your organization, your apps need to be compelling and very responsive.

Alex Bratton is CEO and chief geek at Lextech, a mobile app development company that evaluates business workflows to identify and build apps that improve processes and make the complex simple. He can be reached at [email protected].