Mobile Apps: Necessity or Needless Expense?

Last Updated on August 11, 2016

How to tell if your business really needs an app

With the explosion of smartphones like the iPhone and Android, and the meteoric rise in the popularity of apps (which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t entirely fueled by Angry Birds), more and more businesses are convinced that in order to compete, they need an app developed.

But that isn’t necessarily true. In many cases, a mobile responsive website is a more practical and effective investment than a dedicated app.

While it’s certainly cool to have a fun, flashy app that you can call your own—and in some cases a native app can be a smart business investment—it’s important to understand when you have a case for a standalone application and when you should stick to a mobile-friendly website. The first step is pinpointing the differences between the two.

Why apps and mobile websites aren’t synonymous

At first glance, there are plenty of similarities between mobile websites and native apps. Both are accessed on handheld devices, like smartphones and tablets. Both often include interactive features that are compatible with touch screens.

The main difference is that apps are downloaded onto a device, while mobile sites are accessed through an Internet connection, typically a Wi-Fi, 3G, or 4G network. Apps are software obtained through device-specific markets like Google Play for Android users, and installed on the device’s memory. Mobile websites are viewed in browsers, just like regular Internet sites, and don’t require downloading or installing software.

How mobile websites differ from typical web pages

Some companies mistakenly believe that mobile websites are the same as regular websites, only smaller. Unfortunately, many typical sites don’t render well on a mobile device, and some are completely inaccessible.

Mobile websites are designed specifically for smaller handheld displays, and include features that make use of touch-screen interfaces. In addition to the usual content elements—text, images, links, video—a website optimized for devices can make use of mobile-specific features like location-based mapping and click-to-call.

To get a bigger slice of the huge mobile market, businesses can either have their existing website optimized for mobile viewing, or get a separate site that’s designed specifically for smartphones and tablets.

Apps, on the other hand, are limited in that they can only be accessed via handheld device. In addition, developing software to run on iOS is different from developing software to run on Android, Windows Mobile, or Blackberry.

So, which one do you need?

To decide whether your business needs an app or a mobile website, you need to take a number of factors into account:

  • Required features
  • Target audiences
  • Intended purpose
  • Available budget

Ultimately, the choice hinges on your end goals. If you’re looking to engage the widest possible audience with content that’s optimized for mobile viewing, you’ll probably get a better ROI from a mobile website.

There are a number of advantages in opting for a mobile website:

  • Instant availability. Users don’t have to wait for a download—mobile websites are right at their fingertips.
  • Easy upgrading. Mobile websites are updated just like regular websites: when you make changes, they’re instantly viewable by everyone once they’re published to the site. To upgrade an app, you’ll have to invest in a software again and then get users to download the new version.
  • Compatibility. With apps, you’ll need to develop a separate version for every type of device. Mobile websites are compatible with all different devices, because they’re accessed through browsers.
  • Lower costs. On the whole, mobile websites are far less expensive to design and develop than apps. They also take less time, so you can launch your mobile-friendly content sooner.
  • Longevity. Mobile users often delete apps from their phones to make room for new ones. Websites can’t be deleted—they’re always accessible, and can be easily found whenever a potential customer needs your products or services.

When an app makes sense

We’re not app-bashers—we love designing and building them and there are some cases where an app may be beneficial to your business. They’re a good idea for interactive games, complex banking or investment functions, and personalized or user-specific applications in the vein of Evernote. If it’s within your budget, you may even benefit from investing in both a mobile website and an app.

One more thing to keep in mind is that mobile websites can be developed with many of the same features as native apps, only without the download, installation, and cross-platform problems. If you’re looking to market your business to the vast audience of mobile device users, a mobile website is an excellent choice.

US Digital Partners is a Cincinnati-based interactive marketing agency. We do website design and development, iPhone and Android app design and development, social media marketing, email marketing, urban iditarod racing , and much more for Cincinnati clients and beyond.