Mobile Applications vs Mobile websites

December 5th, 2011

About the Author: Dan

I’m Dan Smart, a 38 year old website developer, based in Swansea, UK. I have worked in the software development industry for over 15 years, with experience in web development, mobile handset development, and mobile networks. I work both on websites and web applications with systems such as Wordpress, Laravel, Backbone, Angular.js, node.js and mobile app development with PhoneGap, iOS, and Android. When I’m not developing websites and software, I am a keen runner, involved with mime performance group Innovo Physical Theatre, and also actively involved in my local church.

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A common request from clients is for a mobile application to partner their website (“I’d like an iPhone/iPad app”). This is not a bad request in itself, but I often will discuss with them their reasons for wanting an app, so that they are not spending unnecessary budget on development. Quite often, a mobile website will do the same job or even a better job, than an application.

Strengths and Weaknesses

It’s important to consider the strengths of a mobile application versus a mobile website:

  • A mobile app can access all/most hardware capabilities (e.g. camera, geo location, offline data storage, compass, standard interface elements like tabs and list views). A mobile app can be hardware optimised.
  • A mobile website can access some but not all hardware capabilities (e.g. geo location, offline data storage). A mobile website is limited to the browser’s capabilities and Javascript engine speed, but there is a lot that a browser can do.


  • A mobile app can generate income via the App Store or Android Marketplace. This means that the developer doesn’t have to add a sales mechanism (e.g. merchant banking, PayPal, etc).
  • A mobile website can generate income only through online payment engines (e.g. PayPal, etc).


  • A mobile app (on iPhone/iPad) can only sell subscriptions to content through the App Store, giving 30% to Apple. Apple owns the relationship with the consumer, rather than the client.
  • A mobile website can completely own the relationship with the client, which can be leveraged for other sales opportunities.


  • A mobile app can be launched via a URL, but managing this URL cross-device is challenging. This is an issue when sending emails with links to content.
  • A mobile website can be integrated with an email strategy or other linking. A mobile website URL is cross-browser compatible.
  • A mobile app has to be found via the App Store / Android Marketplace – searching for and getting found by users is haphazard to say the least. A mobile app launch should be accompanied by multiple marketing strategies including the web, to point users to the App Store / Android Marketplace.
  • A mobile website can be found by Google, and standard web marketing strategies and SEO can be used to bring users to your website. In addition, existing users of your website do not have to download a separate application; they can instead be switched automatically to your mobile website and brought online to the mobile experience.

Case Study: The Financial Times

A good example of an organisation choosing a mobile website over a mobile application is the Financial Times. They chose to remove all their mobile applications from the App Store  / Android MarketPlace, and developed a feature rich mobile website. See the following article: Some of the standout figures include:

  • 20% of all online page views are via the mobile website
  • 15% of all new digital subscriptions come via the mobile website.

The lesson is that we should consider the requirements of the mobile experience for the user, and then choose a platform (website or application) following this. Don’t assume that an application is always the solution.

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