Responsive Website Or Mobile App? Choose Your Weapon.



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The global theme for the Social Media Week 2015, taking place in cities across the world including Hamburg, is “Upwardly Mobile”. By choosing this topic, we cast the net wide to avoid a narrow focus on the present and to enable us to get a view on future developments and surrounding areas that might not at first sight appear to be relevant to mobile devices but are part of a mobile lifestyle.

In this article, though, I’m going to concentrate on a topic that is a bit more grounded in the present. As your Yoga teacher no doubt keeps telling you, it’s not a bad idea to slow down and live in the moment every now and then. So let’s get down to some serious mindfulness and find out: why should I develop a mobile phone app when a responsive website will do?

Responsive Website vs. Smartphone App

Since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, apps have been all the rage. Google’s Android operating system quickly followed, and the launch of the iPad started an era in which websites and apps can be experienced on a plethora of devices with differing screen sizes, capabilities and connection speeds.

Remember when the first iPhone came out? Websites were mostly displayed as they would be on the desktop, and you had to zoom in and out to click the midget links and press the doll’s house buttons. Apps, on the other hand, were perfectly tailored to the device you ran it on. But with time, websites began to adapt to the new devices and one of the ways of doing this was to use things called “media queries” that adapt the presentation of the website according to attributes like screen size.

With HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript-powered AJAX technology, web designers have a broad pallete of tools that enable them to write rich, interactive applications that work in most modern browsers. One of the first of these browser-powered applications was GMail, which is a stunning example of how the browser can be hollowed out from inside and made to behave almost as though it were a standalone application running natively on the computer.

Why Facebook dropped HTML5 in favour of native apps

However, on mobile devices this technology has its limits. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote off his bet on HTML5 as his “biggest mistake”. Facebook is available as a mobile website, which you can use in your browser on your smartphone. If you’ve ever tried using it you’ll notice that it is not as responsive (in the speed sense) as the app. And a few years ago, you may remember that the Facebook app itself was notoriously sluggish. This was because the app itself was written in HTML5, as Facebook hoped that it would be possible to adopt a “write once, run anywhere” approach to their app by writing it in HTML5 and essentially putting a wrapper around it and offering it through the app store.

Now, Facebook offers apps specifically programmed for iOS, Android and Windows Phone and the mobile website is a fallback for others.

So what is it about apps, other than their performance, that makes them attractive?

Björn Heimberger has just launched Book ‘n’ App, which creates apps for the publishing industry. On the website (disclosure: I translated it for him) Book ‘n’ App claims “We don’t take on projects blindly. Thanks to our experience in marketing … we can judge which projects have potential ….” So I asked him what makes an app successful.

He said that to be successful, an app should: “contain content that is targeted to a specific audience and consistent with modern user behaviour and be able to reach its target audience without investment in social media. But beware! The user is spoilt, so it is a good idea to develop it for as many devices as possible and for the most popular app stores.”

He continues: “Apps have made advertising measurable for the first time and make it possible for you to generate income from your existing, familiar customer base but in a new form.”

In favour of Responsive Websites

That’s not to say that you always need an app where a responsive website will do. I stumbled upon a discussion on Twitter, started by a comment from Mia Ridge, Chair of the UK Museums Computer Group:

Judging by the reactions, Mia’s isn’t an uncommon gripe.  But what is it about responsive websites that can make them preferable to an app?

Firstly, they are easier to access. If someone links to a website on another website or a social network, you can go straight there without having to download the app first. Depending on your data connection, it can be frustrating having to download a load of bloat just to get some simple information. We’ve all seen apps that either add no functionality over and above what a website can offer, which means that the user has been sent on an unnecessary journey through an app store or has lost interest along the way

Secondly, there is the issue of cross-platform compatibility. If you happen to have an Android device and the app is only available for iOS, then you’re stuck. But if the provider has chosen a responsive website instead, then you are in luck. This is related to a more lofty ideal that speaks in favour of adhering to web standards: a responsive website (if done correctly) is more openly accessible, so it doesn’t exclude people with access to certain devices and the content is more easily reusable.

Thirdly, apps are more expensive if they are done properly. Some apps are frustratingly buggy. Presumably the bugginess is a result of lack of budget required to test it properly and iron out bugs.

The replies to Mia Ridge’s comment also relativise the comment to a degree: even responsive websites are sometimes frustratingly large, which is especially problematic on a slow mobile connection. And specific to the museums sector: visitors from abroad may not have an internet connection, so it is nice for them to be able to download an app before they travel or in their hotel room. (Maybe I’m the only one, but I’m not sure many tourists are that organised.)


So to sum up: apps are great where they offer native functionality that responsive websites cannot, or where the app is so complex that it would become sluggish in the browser, or you need access to offline information when no internet connection is available. If there isn’t a good reason to have an app, then you risk annoying users and excluding some of them. For producers of apps, the marketing possibilities provided by the app stores are an added advantage and, according to Björn Heimberger, make advertising measurable for the first time.

Whether you choose a responsive website or an app, the budget should be sufficient to test for bugs and correct them.

Responsive websites make more sense if you are presenting something that doesn’t need that extra functionality because they are more accessible for users of all devices and they don’t have to go through the app store process.

Featured image: (c) John Heaven

About The Author

John Heaven is a co-organiser of the Social Media Week Hamburg. Originally from Birmingham, UK, John has lived in Hamburg since 2010. As well as writing for ““Why Hamburg?” and Hamburg Startups, John empowers others to create and manage their own content with Drupal and WordPress. He offers these and other services under the brand “Heaven & Weps” which he started in 2014 with Ferdinand Weps. Before becoming self-employed, John worked across the public and private sector, mainly in roles relating to the internet and social media but also political participation and organisational change.

In his spare time, John is a keen photographer.

Twitter: @johnheaven

skype: johnheaven

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