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Mobile App vs. Mobile Web: Which is Right for Your Business?

Many business owners must’ve scratched their heads to a premature bald spot considering this question—and with good reason: there are an estimated 5.3 BILLION mobile subscribers worldwide (77% of the world’s population), with smartphone sales exploding. That’s a big audience, and who wouldn’t want in on such action?

The promise increases when we hear stories of basement developers who have struck gold overnight in the app store gold-mine, and the pressure escalates still when, looking around, it seems that everyone is coming out with a cool new app.

But the question remains—do YOU need one?

First, a few basic questions

There are different ways to reach the new mobile frontier, so it’s important to ask a few preliminary questions before you set out.

In an interview with, principal analyst at Forrester, Ian Fogg, suggested starting by taking a hard look at your clients and asking yourself:

  1. How many of them are using smartphones?

  2. How likely are they to use them for your service?

For instance, say you own a local bakery. It might seem like a cool idea to get a nifty little app that would let people run a finger through your menu and place orders—but these things can just as easily be done over the phone or through your website (more on that later).

Even if most of your clients use smartphones, it’s not very likely they’ll go out of their way to use your app, or that it would greatly enhance their experience if they did. Contrast this with an interactive service that can benefit from the enhanced integration with phone features, and you start seeing the difference.

Don’t go about it backwards

Next, you need to identify your objective, needs, and the available options. It’s been said time and again that an app represents a mobile tactic, not a mobile strategy. Tactic is a specific course of action aimed at achieving a given end. It comes at the culmination of a strategic process. But to formulate a solution, one must first articulate the problem. That’s where the following questions come in handy:

  1. What do you hope to achieve by going mobile?

  2. Who are your customers? What are their habits, social/financial standing, computer literacy, etc?

  3. What will the app offer clients? How will it enhance their experience?

  4. What available solutions can help you achieve that?

Your Options

Once you’ve answered the first three questions you'll be ready to assess your options. The three commonly available means of reaching a mobile audience are:

  1. SMS/MMS

  2. Mobile Website

  3. Mobile Apps

SMS and MMS are geared at people who communicate predominantly (if not solely) via text messaging, either because they do not own a smartphone and/or data-plan, or because they prefer it that way. If that’s your audience, you might very well have to look no further.

But since we’re writing primarily for the data-hungry North American audience, we’ll assume you have your sights on a more feature-rich experience and focus on the last two.

The Financial Post featured a one-page brochure designed by Buy Sell Ads Inc. that did a great job of pinning them against one another in a visually simple and concise manner.

Mobile Apps

Mobile apps are all the rage now. Popularized by Apple’s iPhone and App Store, who’ve since become the poster-child for Mobile Apps in general (even though many other players—from manufacturers like Samsung, Nokia, and HTC; to alternate platforms like Google’s Android and Windows 7—hold a significantly larger market share)

As outlined by Aaron Maxwell at Mashable, Apps fall into two categories:

  1. Apps built for revenue generation (i.e. the App is your business)

  2. Apps created as a marketing tactic, to improve branding, or to provide a service. (i.e. the App promotes or enhances your business)

In the first case the app is sold and the revenue makes up your pay check.

In the second, apps are usually offered for free download, as the goal is to maximize market penetration.

Since this article assumes you are a business owner thinking of branching into mobile rather than a developer venturing to join the App Store gold-rush, we'll limit the discussion to the latter.

For the first, we’ll just say that—unless you have a truly fresh concept that’s relevant and needed, or unless you require the specific technology (GPS, motion sensors, etc) to realize your vision—you may find hitting gold much harder than it sounds. At the very least, read Tomi T. Ahonen’s excellent analysis of the subject before you take up your pickaxe—or worse, start committing capital. It may be a year old, but it’s still very relevant.


  • Use more robust and engaging graphics

  • Incorporate unique phone features (such as GPS, motions sensors, etc)

  • Native phone environment enables faster response time and overall an enhanced feature-rich experience.


  • Expensive: $15,000 - $35,000 (for iPhone) + updates & maintenance

  • Different platforms require separate apps

  • Exclusive: Picking one audience means shunning another, unless you develop an app for every platform.

The strength of mobile apps is that they reside on the phone and can therefore offer a level of performance and interactivity a mobile website simply cannot match. However, this comes at a price—a steep one. So make sure you really need the advantage of those benefits before marching ahead.

As mentioned in the Buy Sell Ads brochure, an app can only serve three purposes: utility, content, or entertainment. Of the three, utility and entertainment are worthy candidates that can indeed benefit from the added features, but content can almost always be enjoyed just as well from a mobile website. (As a case in point, most big newspapers offer both mobile apps and mobile websites, and while I’ve downloaded the respective mobile apps on my iPhone 4, I find that I'm still more likely to use the mobile site than launch the app)

Further, with an app you target a niche audience that represent a mere fraction of all mobile users. In 2010, the 80 Million or so iPhones in use represented a mere 13% of all installed smartphones. This means that, if you designed an app for the iPhone, you automatically excluded 87% of the worldwide market (97% when considering featurephones and SMS/MMS capable devices in addition to smartphones) [Source]

Now, it may be that the audience for your particular product or service happens to favor the iPhone. With that knowledge, making an exclusive iPhone app can be perfectly sensible. But that’s why knowing your audience and formulating a strategy is so crucial.

You could, of course, create a dedicated app for every platform—but that can run into prohibitive costs (as much as $100,000 and upwards), so again, just be sure you’re prepared and know ahead of time what you’re getting yourself into. The last thing you want is to start a development project that will never see it to completion (that's more in the vein of City hall)

That said, here are a few more reasons you might decide to opt for an App:

  • You or your team members have the skills to develop a professional app. This can certainly cut your costs and make it a worthwhile effort.

  • Your customers have expressed the desire to have one (this at least warrants some consideration).

  • You’re big enough so that it will be noticed if you don’t have one.

  • You want to be perceived in a certain way (just make sure you can afford the impression)

Mobile Websites

A mobile website is a streamlined version of your regular sites, specifically designed with mobile use in mind.


  • Cheaper to develop: ~$3,000

  • Usable across platforms

  • More than adequate for most content based use


  • Limited features and graphics

  • Can run a bit slower than an app

  • Depends on web connectivity

A mobile website is an excellent alternative to apps in many cases. By all accounts, while individual figures vary, mobile websites are significantly cheaper to develop—but even assuming the cost of initial development would equal that of a mobile app, just the fact that it's accessible by all platforms makes it a far more affordable choice down the road.

In some cases, if your service requires special features or interactivity, a mobile site might not do—but be sure that you really do need those features.

In the quoted blog, Tomi T. Ahonen suggested you start from the broad market, and proceed to zero in as needed. That is, start with a mobile web app to reach the widest audience for a relatively low investment, and then develop dedicated apps to target specific platforms if deemed necessary.

This certainly sounds like a sensible approach.

Build your own using do-it-yourself tools

Lastly, if you’re the owner of that local bakery we mentioned at the beginning and find it makes no economical sense for you to have a dedicated app professionally developed, you might still feel an itch to test the water. That’s where tools like AppMakr ($199 according to Cnet, though the website says Free so the terms may have changed since the 2010 review), My App Builder ($29/month), or iBuildApp (Free!) can come in handy.

These products basically let’s you choose from several templates and incorporate different features. The good part is that they require no programming skills and no (or very little) capital investment. The not-so-good part is that reviewers are not always raving, and you should obviously manage your expectations (don't set yourself to failure by thinking you'll end up with a state-of-the-art ultra-sophisticated virtual gadget—this is more for the 'simple and functional' approach)

But still, if you wanted to try building an app by yourself without risking your pants—this definitely can’t hurt. At the very least it would help test the demand—and if things pick up, you'll always be able to into professional development.

Check out this post from for a great rundown of app building tools with summaries and videos.


So while the decision would ultimately depend on your individual circumstances, you definitely shouldn't jump on the mobile app bandwagon simply because everyone seems to do it, or because it’s cool, or because you feel like you have to...

Do your research, ask questions, come up with answer, and formulate your strategy.

If you still find at the end that app is the way to go—by all means, go ahead and develop one. If you find that your goals can be achieved with a mobile site or that you needn’t really go mobile at all, you might just save yourself a hunk of change.

It's understandable that you want to keep your business on the cutting edge—just keep in mind that those plastering the poster boys are in business too so you don't fall easy prey to marketers.

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posted by Maty Grosman @ 11:31 AM