Responsive web design, app, or mobile website?

With cell phones and tablets becoming an increasingly central part of daily life, the question is no longer whether you should create a mobile version of your web project, but how. Our tendency to use the internet while on the move means that, now more than ever, a strong mobile presence is vital for a web project’s success. This is particularly pertinent to online trade; in the past few years, web stores have experienced a boom in mobile traffic, meaning that a half-hearted attempt at optimising your web store for mobile devices will no longer cut the mustard.

American store owners have been quick to pick up on the new trends in commerce, if this study by eMarketer is to be believed. In to the 2015 study, 86% of respondents had websites that were optimised for mobile devices, and three quarters also had mobile apps. 51% of respondents also agreed that it was important to have an app available for tablets. But when it comes to which mobile solution is best suited for a web project, website operators are still faced with a very difficult decision. Native apps vs. web apps, responsive mobile sites vs. good, old-fashioned desktop sites: all the options have their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

Mobile websites: the classic solution

After the first mobile phones capable of accessing the internet emerged in the 1990s, it wasn’t long before web developers began producing the first websites optimised for mobile devices. Since these devices were not capable of supporting elaborate pages, the first mobile websites were programmed to be as streamlined as possible. However, advances in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript as well as the emergence of smartphones and tablets have led to the increased capabilities of mobile sites.

Today, mobile websites generally act as an additional, reduced version of the original desktop website. Due to their weaker hardware and limited transferable data volume, creating sites for mobile devices poses different challenges. For example, web developers need to pay special attention to loading times, create an accessible user interface, and ensure simple and fast navigation. When making mobile sites, programmers are also tasked with adjusting the height and width of the website so that it automatically adapts to different screen sizes.

  • Advantages: works on all platforms; separate from the desktop version; content can be perfectly tailored for the user; cheap to produce
  • Disadvantages: needs extra maintenance since the mobile site’s content is not congruent with that of the desktop version; additional URL necessary
  • Suitable for: web projects with static content; small websites

Responsive websites – the flexible solution

As one of the official Google ranking factors, responsive design is a hot topic in the world of web development, and the buzz is hard to ignore. But what exactly is responsive web design? The clue is in the name; ‘responsive’ refers to the website responding to the device in use. During the loading process, the graphical structure allows the website to adapt to the capabilities of the device used. This means that all visitors enjoy a similar level of simplicity and usability, whether they’re accessing the site on a smartphone, tablet, or PC. Size and resolution are the primary criteria here, but programmers need to consider other important factors, including the various input methods such as touchscreen and mouse, and the available bandwidth.

A responsive website differs from a separate mobile website in that there’s only one version of the web presence rather than two. All elements, from blocks of texts to images and everything in between, are integrated into the same template so that only the display differs from device to device.

  • Advantages: works on all platforms; one template for all devices; all content can be accessed via the same URL
  • Disadvantages: requires a great deal of time and money; difficult to convert ordinary desktop websites into responsive mobile sites
  • Suitable for: blogs; brand new web projects

Web apps – the practical browser application

Web applications–also known as web apps–are application programs that are based on a server-client model. Clients are characterised as the part of the app that is shown to users in their browser; the web application can also be operated in this way. The HTTP protocol is used as a line of communication between the client and the web server where the web app is located; this enables the user to access the respective service. The app’s website, which also has its own URL, therefore acts as a user interface. Unlike typical computer applications, no installation is necessary to use a web app. However, users do require a stable internet connection. 

Generally, while using a web app, session data is created (such as the order information from a online store, for example), which is permanently saved. This normally occurs on the server side on database servers or in files, but it also occasionally happens on the client side with the help of HTTP cookies. Web apps can be used on any platform and on all kinds of devices. The only prerequisite is that the user’s browser is compatible and supports the required web standards such as JavaScript and HTML.

  • Advantages: runs on all platforms; can be converted into a desktop website at any time; no installation necessary
  • Disadvantages: limited access to device functions such as camera or GPS; not available in app stores; permanent internet connection required
  • Suitable for: functional web projects with dynamic content, such as web stores; internal projects within companies

Native apps – platform specific and independent

The distinguishing feature of native apps is that they are specifically tailored for their target platform. Since the emergence of Apple iPhones and Android Smartphones, these application programs have taken on a central role in the world of web development. From office programs to games to planners and organisers, there’s a wide range of native apps from a variety of manufacturers. Unlike web apps, native apps must be downloaded and installed. For this reason, almost all platforms offer special app stores where these apps can be found and downloaded.

Native apps are developed separately for every system, which means that a single web project requires several versions of the app to be developed if it is to be made available on a range of devices. The program is based on the respective software development kit (SDK) for the relevant system. Native apps can access the device’s hardware functions, such as the GPS module, camera, or microphone, and in addition, they can store any amount of data directly onto the device. Website operators can also decide whether or not they would like to make their app available for free.

  • Advantages: easy to find in app stores; access to device functions possible; can create apps at any point in the web development process; good opportunity for marketing
  • Disadvantages: necessary to program several apps including updates for different platforms; heavy burden on the user’s hardware
  • Suitable for: complex web projects with substantial processing power

Conclusion

These four solutions are your main options when it comes to making your web project mobile. The best option for your web project, however, largely depends on your financial situation and the kind of web presence you have. If you only have a limited budget, a mobile website is generally the cheapest option and the quickest to implement. Also, due to the clear-cut distinction from the original desktop website, a mobile site can be created at any stage. This gives it a clear advantage over responsive mobile sites, as the fundamental restructuring of code required to convert an existing website into a responsive one can prove to be a daunting task, even for the most experienced programmers.

However, if you are planning to create an entirely new web presence, it could be worth considering responsive web design. Website operators who regularly post new content tend to be fans of this solution, as they only need to update their sites on one platform in order for changes to be seen on all devices. If your content is functional, however, it’s a good idea to create a website app. Then you’re faced with the decision of web apps vs. native apps. While web apps are faster to develop and can be used without the need to be installed, native apps have their own strengths, namely, their marketing opportunities and range of functions.

If you have the finances at your disposal, a combination of several applications could be useful. For example, Facebook users can use a mobile version or different native apps for iOS and Android in conjunction with the original browser application for PCs. In this way, the social media outlet can substantially attain more users than with a single variation of the network. However, if you are considering creating a similarly large network of linked apps, you must be prepared for extensive costs and the monumental effort required for development and maintenance.