Responsive Website VS Mobile Application

Jan 22 2013

As more and more consumers make smartphone purchases, the arguments around the “New Web” escalate. The most heated being the debate about mobile apps VS responsive design. Which is best?

Native mobile app pundits all heard Mark Zuckerberg loud and clear when he made his famous statement about going to a native mobile app vs HTML5. There’s a very strong case for native mobile apps for companies like Facebook, or Evernote, or Path, or Tweetbot that boast complex interactions and functionality. The Zuck also has deep pockets and dedicated teams to push a complex application (with very specific Use Cases that leverage device hardware) in the native direction. The RD2 point-of-view is to always look to your Use Cases and let them define your native vs non-native needs.

But let’s do some comparison. The following chart illustrates a few points that are worth considering when thinking about creating a responsive website VS a mobile app.

Chart: Responsive Web VS Mobile Applications

Marketing Integration
Currently, there is a big gap in the ability of mobile apps to function with and track results of any online-based marketing campaign. For instance, an email campaign in conjunction with a mobile app only shows you half the story…who opened and clicked the email. With a responsive website, you can see both sides. Who clicked the email (be it from their computer or their smartphone) and what they did on your website. As an added bonus, the responsive website can tie directly into the look and feel of the marketing campaign. Native mobile apps have hobbled this simple experience which creates another degree of separation away from the analytics marketers need.

Content Management
Today’s websites, when built on the right platform, can act as a solid backbone for both a responsive website and a mobile app. But while a website can be quickly and easily updated to add new content and enhancements, updating a mobile app can be laborious and expensive.

Content Accessibility
When creating an iOS mobile app, you are only talking to one audience: those with an Apple product. When you create a responsive website, your online conversation can happen with anyone who has 
a device that will access the Internet. Furthermore, your website will be smart enough to bring your content to those devices in a way that provides the best possible representation and design, rather than a website that looks like a desktop monitor squashed into an iPhone screen.

Internet Access
While a mobile app might allow you to store some content locally, the bulk of mobile apps require just as much, if not more, access to the internet to support content updates, location searches, and more. The key difference is the consumer expectation…Consumers expect mobile apps to work no matter their access to the Web. If a mobile app does not function (either all or in part) without Internet, then the mobile app will have failed in the mind of the consumer.

Risk of Mobile App Rejection
A commonly overlooked point is that ALL mobile apps must be submitted to a third party system for approval before being released to the public. Subject to changing guidelines, unknown corporate agendas, weekends, and holidays, such approval times may vary from a few days to several months. Not to mention the costs to fix any issues that might arise through the application process as it will likely need to be applied to the iOS, Android, and Windows Mobile ecosystems.

Development Costs
With the contenders in the smartphone industry constantly growing and changing, developing mobile apps specific to each device and each platform can be expensive. Additionally, creating a mobile app means supporting multiple versions of software since no smartphone producer has a way of forcing everyone to be running the same operating system. Conversely, a responsive website is only limited by the capabilities of the Internet browser…something that is well documented, easily managed, and progressing everyday.

Access to Device Hardware
While there are many ways in which responsive websites might seem a better solution, the key attribute that makes mobile apps great is their ability to access the functions and capabilities of the device. While there are sometimes a few tricks to allow websites to gain access to things like GPS positioning, they are never universal and unreliable at best. A mobile app clearly excels when it comes to creating unique interaction experiences like taking a picture and posting it to Facebook or scanning a QR code to entry a drawing for a prize giveaway.

The Pudding
RD2 has been involved in both sides of the mobile app and responsive Web debate. Check out some of the apps we’ve done for Dell, Management Exchange, and Tyler Technologies as well as some of our more recent responsive website efforts.

Bottom Line

The current state of the mobile application and mobile Web space is a huge challenge for brands today. It’s the hand grenade in the room minus the pin for marketing teams and brand managers who want to create memorable and useful applications for consumers. Building integrated mobile applications that target Apple, Android, and Windows is a high cost game where the rules change frequently.

Brands do have alternatives to play in this space. The emerging HTML5 is growing stronger nearly every day and there are many Use Cases that support the responsive methods of Web design. Mobile platforms cannot deny their consumers access to the Web browser, the line of demarcation for mobile Web expectations. This approach affords brands a safe zone where they can be creative with their brand content as well as a ubiquitous mobile experience.

While we at RD2 love mobile apps, and have built many, we recommend first defining business objectives and benefits expected from a mobile experience. Break that experience down into clear Use Cases. Then determine if those Use Cases point to features and functions that require access to device hardware or other “mobile app only” supported instances. Then, define the value of your features and functions against your business case and the value to your target audience. Make your decision based on the aggregate of your findings. Does building a mobile Web app jive with my business model AND provide a user experience that cannot be supported using responsive Web design approaches? Then you will have your answer.


What do you think about the the capabilities of a responsive site VS a mobile application? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.


One Comment to “Responsive Website VS Mobile Application”

  1. Nice

    By Newt R on January 25th, 2013 at 9:48 am

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