Mobile-Friendly Website vs. Mobile Applications: No Monkeying Around

Although the two terms may intersect in many a new media dialogue they are as different as sharks and monkeys.

To paraphrase Socrates (poorly): I know that I know nothing. Yet, oddly, this makes me wiser than most. 

This statement is not made in some vain attempt to rectify the fact that the speed of technology moves faster than my feeble mind can possibly comprehend – rather, it is an acknowledgement that I am able to identify the 800-lb gorilla in the room when he is inspecting my head for fleas. We’ll call this great ape Steve Jobs.

The introduction of the iPhone, barely four years ago, changed everything. Not just in the way we communicate, how we navigate, how we interface, or how we accessorize, but in how we perceive the very nature of accessing information. The Web, as we know it, is dead. The ball-and-chain that we associate with the traditional PC/desk interface is becoming as antiquated a notion as television without DVR. Today, the Internet is mobile. It is truly free.

I am what you would call a serial early adopter. I was introduced to mobile browsing by my first “smart phone”, Motorola’s V200 Personal Communicator, which in 2002 was named Editor’s Choice by PC Magazine. Yes, it was a phone. Yes, it could send and receive text messages. Yes, it could handle email. And, YES, it could access the Net. My anticipation was that my long-sought dream of a mobile web would soon be realized. However, with its 2G speed, its tiny, monochrome, non-tactile display and text-only browser, the overall experience was less than nirvana. Today, my V200 sits in my drawer of misfit technologies, products that were perhaps a bit ahead of their time but failed to provide the killer app. My drawer is full of phones.

motorola device

Motorola described that its new technological marvel “combines advanced messaging and calling capabilities in a stylish, compact unit”

And then came Steve…

With today’s smartphones, including but not just limited to the iPhone, millions of us experience a rich user-interface and seamless access to the web and all its bounty – websites, movies, music, news, etc. Just take a look at some of the trending:

  • 63.2 million unique users in the US accessed news and information using a mobile device in January, 22.37 million did so on a daily basis.
  • Web access using mobile devices on a weekly basis grew 87% from 10.31 million to 19.28 million.
  • Monthly unique mobile web usage was up 71% from 36.87 million to 63.18 million since January of 2008.

But for many of us, the novelty of pulling up a website on a phone has worn off. For starters, smartphones don’t play Flash, making literally millions of websites absolutely useless for the mobile user. In addition, even websites that can be displayed properly on a mobile device lack a compelling mobile user experience as the size of the screen renders the content nay un-readable. Sure, the phones have their tricks – the double-tap was a great invention and a personal favorite of mine. However, the fact remains that these websites were designed for large monitors, using a keyboard and a mouse, and accessing them on a tiny device – no matter how high the resolution – leaves us frustrated and believing that there must be a better way.

Today’s modern web philosophy has seen the rise of alternative websites that are designed specifically for the dimensions and features of a mobile device. These “mobile-friendly” websites factor in size and usability to create page layouts that meet user’s needs quickly, show only essential information and make user input as simple as possible.

What is the difference between a Mobile-Friendly Website and a Mobile App?

I have experienced confusion of late with my customers in regards to the difference between a “mobile-friendly” website and a mobile app. Both are buzz words and both might seem to imply the same thing to the non-geek.

Allow me a moment to clarify their distinctions through rudimentary definitions:

Website

  • Website built for PC / Mac (enough said)

Mobile-Friendly Website

  • Website built specifically for mobile devices

Mobile App

  • Internet application that runs on smartphones and other mobile devices

Mobile Websites

When you’re building a website for viewing on a mobile device, you have to forget just about everything you know about traditional website development.

  • On a mobile device, screens are small. Because of that, you don’t want to display global navigation on every page as you would on a traditional site. For mobile devices, keep navigation links to a minimum.
  • Keep content to a minimum. Communicate only the most essential information.
  • Mobile device users are mainly interested in doing something. Strip away content that are research oriented, such as “About” and “Company History” pages.
  • Make sure every page has a “Back” button at the bottom, since mobile browsers typically don’t display one.
  • Don’t try to replicate the complicated design aesthetics of the main website – start from scratch and keep design to an artistic minimum.

Mobile Apps

Mobile apps aren’t websites at all – they are programs, human.

  • Apps are mobile software developed by using different platforms and programming languages based on the target mobile device.
  • Today, there are countless hundreds of thousands of mobile apps. Apple categorizes its Web apps as follows: Calculate, Entertainment, Games, News, Productivity, Search Tools, Social Networking, Sports, Travel, Utilities, Weather.
  • Usually task-specific – simpler, seeker services in favor of open, unfettered web
  • Less about the searching and more about the getting
  • True ‘Native’ apps do not require Internet access.
  • Content already downloaded to a smartphone can be instantly accessed. No waiting for web pages to download.
  • Can take advantage of a smartphone’s inherent technologies (eg, GPS, voice-recognition, touch screen, gyroscopes)
  • Create an omnipresent brand placement on a user’s smartphone desktop. Prime real estate.

When an organization is planning its Internet Marketing Strategy (IMS), it should strongly consider developing for all three platforms (website, mobile-friendly website, mobile app) so as not to neglect its current and/or potential users, regardless of where they are coming from. Although a mobile-friendly website and a mobile app may have features that are redundant, it is important to consider the differences we outlined above and determine how each can provide a unique and specialized user experience. For example, a college app might include a campus map, or a fast food franchise might include a location finder that locates the nearest chain via the smartphone’s GPS capabilities. Both of these features can be replicated on either a standard website or a mobile-friendly website; however, the benefits of these applications running on a native platform – not from an HTML web page running on a remote server – are significant in terms of time and ease of use. Think of the difference between watching a movie on DVD and streaming it online. Plus, having your app residing on the desktop of your user’s cell phone provides a one touch convenience that will ensure a satisfactory experience and encourage multiple uses – perfect for that moment when the mood strikes for a triple-decker caribou slider.  Proactive marketers can push the envelope even further by ‘pushing’ a message about that slider out to a user when he or she is in a geographically close proximity, thus actually creating the mood. This is something that only an app can do.

One potential down-side of mobile apps is Interoperability – the ability of software to function on multiple platforms – versus User Experience – the optimization of software to function at its highest degree on a specialized platform. Take an iPhone app for example. It must be programmed in the iPhone’s native platform, Objective C. Unlike a mobile-friendly website that will work on any smartphone, a native app built for an iPhone will not work on any other phone, thus eliminating about 70% of current smart devices. In order to cover the breadth of the smartphone market, therefore, one must build individual apps for the iPhone, Android phones, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Palm platforms. This can be time-consuming and expensive.

smartphone marketshare diagram

smartphone marketshare diagram

While the Android OS has overtaken Apple (iOS) in market share the two combine for almost 80% of the total market.

However, given the dominance of the iPhone and Android phones, an organization can cover roughly 80% of the smartphone market simply by building on these two platforms. An emerging option for complete Interoperability is to develop what has been coined HTML5 Apps, which have one single core application, are written with web standards, primarily HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and are deployed on more than one mobile platform. More on that later.

Regardless of whether you are an iPhone, Android or Blackberry user, these issues should be given strong consideration. Do the research and see what types of devices your customers are using. For example, if they are government employees, they most assuredly will have a Blackberry. Technical people may favor the Android platform due to its open source while creative people tend to fall in with the Apple-lovers crowd.

So, which platform is right for you? In addition to your website –  and its not inconsequential costs – do you need to invest in both (mobile web and mobile app) or should you hold back? Our belief is absolute that, regardless of whether or not you have a mobile-friendly website and/or a mobile app, you must have a mobile PRESENCE going forward. Not later. Not next year. NOW. Because, just today, consider that about 20% of people visiting your website are doing so from their cell phone, and that number is growing exponentially. And if your organization invests the time and research to learn about the inherent qualities of each emerging platform and how they can better serve your existing and potential users, you will find yourself at the cutting edge and in a competitive advantage over those that are trying to eat you.

Thanks, Steve. Have a banana.

Frank Farris

Frank Farris is Founder and CEO of DeepBlue. He has been an active thought leader in the application of emerging web technologies since 1998 and is a champion of the movement to make the Responsive Web Design approach the new industry standard.

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