Ask LH: Why Do Companies Build Mobile Apps Rather Than Mobile Sites?

Dear Lifehacker, As a Symbian smartphone user, it makes my heart sink every time I see a business promoting that they now have an app for iPhone or Android (and possibly BlackBerry). What would be wrong with a mobile web app? I understand that iOS is one of the most popular mobile OSes in Australia and the world, but what's the reason for businesses to aim squarely and sometimes solely at that sector of the market to the detriment of everyone else?

Does developing for iOS have advantages over developing for the mobile web? And what advantage would there be in developing for iOS, Android or BlackBerry over just doing a good mobile web site? My next phone will probably be an Android but this question has interested me for years.

Sincerely Left Out

Dear Left Out,

This is a question we often ask ourselves. Companies fall over themselves to promote new mobile apps, yet all too often those apps don't do anything that couldn't also be accomplished in a browser. In some cases, the app does little more than act as a bookmark for an existing site, which seems even more pointless. Given the rates that many mobile developers charge, we'd always advise any business to develop a mobile site that works on a variety of handsets, rather than throwing all their eggs in one basket.

Having said that, there are a couple of obvious reasons why a mobile app might make sense over a mobile site:

  • It can take advantage of phone-specific features, such as the GPS. (That said, some mobile sites do that too.)
  • It means you'll have an icon for a specific company on your phone, which often appeals to marketing types as a concept.

But neither of those make a particularly compelling case for most sites. Modern mobiles do a pretty good job of rendering standard sites, but it's still good to have access to a version that's optimised for a smaller screen. That's our take -- if readers have a different view, we'd love to hear it in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker


Comments

    Bookmarks-as-apps appeal to the non-technically-savvy crowd. There are some people with the mindset everything is an app - and don't know what that "Safari" thing is. (I don't know the Android equivalent, is the browser called "Chrome" or something more generic?)

      The default browser is just called "internet". Makes it real simple for new starters.

    Most mobile sites aren't just optimised for smaller screens, they have most html/scripts stripped out of them in order to cater for low-end phones.

    Companies like google simply push a third version of the site. For reader they have the stripped-down mobile version (www.google.com/reader/m/), the touchscreen smartphone version (www.google.com/reader/i/) and the full version (www.google.com/reader/). Not all companies want to go with that method, it seems.

    The second reason for doing so is: If you can get your logo permanently on a customers screen, it's free advertising and seriously increases your chance of them checking your content. Most companies value having a direct channel to customers that way more than having an open and sensibly designed website.

    Monetisation. You can charge for an app a lot easier than you can charge for access to a site. Just ask Fairfax

    Mobile apps, especially with offline storage, are really appealing to those of us with ipod touches, or unreliable networks. My biggest gripe about mobile web sites is they are completely useless once the bars disappear, whereas an app can at least hold some information offline (last updated balance, or train timetables, for example).

    I find mobile web sites kind of pointless as they usually aren't done well.

    Apps allow more seamless interaction and are a better speed experience (thinking about ANZgoMoney for iPhone here).

    If there isn't an app I just go to the normal site and deal with the scrolling.

    And don't get me started about herding/restricting users to mobile sites when the normal site is more functional and usable anyway!

    Not a different view from me but my poor old (well i got it in march 2010) N97,(s60) phone. Yes it is so annoying how it was abandoned from support, and half decent apps almost as soon as i got it. Most of the Nokia(OVI store)apps are very average at best. Agreed most apps are just stupid useless bookmarks anyways.Glad at least i have Skype(w/no video support for s60, but for IOS & Android it does). Not fair....

      ps. would love an s60 version of chrome or Firefox...using Opera ATM

    The advantages of a native app extend to speed and quality of the interface, push notifications, tighter integration with device features such as add to calendar, view/manage contacts, local notifications, and usage of the Google Maps wrapper which is a whole lot smoother than the web version.

    Web apps are becoming easier to build and manage cross-platform with frameworks such as jQuery Mobile. Increased support for HTML5 should pave the way for more powerful web apps that don't require having a particular device to install.

    Websites in general are a poor substitute for local applications. The constant communication between the client and server, the overhead of HTML markup, makes for a slow user experience. It's my preference to always obtain a local application whenever possible over a web page, the only communications to remote server should be for actual payload data, not markup or images or how to render a screen. Banking apps are a great example of this, why do they need to communicate an entire HTML page to my phone, when all they need to transmit is the data I requested (ie, account balance, or result of a transfer, or transaction history).

    That said, if the do insist on using HTML5 and it's other technologies (or whatever the current marketing trend may be), then it should ONLY be delivered through a website. If you have gone to the trouble of creating this cumbersome website with all the overhead that goes along with it, don't then exclude potential customers by wrapping it up as an application for specific platforms.

    Simple as this: Apps, locally stored program assets, use native platform functionality, only transmit payload information to and from remote servers
    Website, Remotely stored assets, transmits both rendering and payload information every time it is requested, not restricted to particular devices/platforms!

      I saw some apps actually transmit more data then its mobile site. There are actually more poorly written apps then poorly written mobile site at this stage.

    Still, I will never understand why companies assume iOS is the most popular - there are more Android handsets out there than iPhones

    Sure, there are more iOS devices, but if you take out the ones that aren't 3G enabled, it's just silly that companies make iOS apps, then stop.

    where does it all end? web browsers having app stores? gimme a break

      Um, trolling about the chrome "web store"?

    Dear Left Out. Get a real smart phone. No really - Symbian? Outdated, poorly supported and with an uncertain future. Time to go back to having just a phone that makes calls, or upgrade to something useful.

      What excellent advice! I didn't realise that simply changing your phone made apps turn into websites.

      Thankyou so much.

    Not sure if it has been mentioned but I think having an app in the 'top' lists would also be great advertising

    I've been feeling a little left out with my new WP7 phone since late last year. But I have to admit purpose build apps on WP7 do look and run so much bettern than a mobile site. Just look at the Auspost app as an idea of what can be done with the wonderful new interface design.

    CBA's Netbank Mobile website is fantastically done.

    Any site that has anything perceived as adult content by Apple (bare flesh below the chin, exposed ankles etc, satire, QR stamps) is best served by a mobile site. As soon as it becomes an app, then Apple restricts it.

    There is support for local storage in mobile web browsers. However the techniques & programming patterns are too new and have not gained enough traction in the development community. In my opinion this is because of the bad experiences developers have had in the past creating cross browser compatible websites.

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