The soaring usage of mobile devices no longer is a “new trend.” Today, more than three-fourths of Americans use smartphones and half of them regularly avow that they could not live without one. More than two thirds have made a purchase on their mobile device, but that includes, of course, legions who shopped not once, but made dozens and hundreds of purchases–and do virtually all their online shopping on a mobile device. A statistic that becomes relevant in our comparison of the advantages and drawbacks of “responsive websites” and “native mobile apps” is that, in 2018, worldwide there were 194 billion downloaded apps.
For any enterprise that does business online, and overwhelmingly for businesses that succeed by working to attracting online customers to their websites, it has been mandatory to ensure an easy, appealing reception for smartphone users and other mobile visitors. And yet, the great majority of websites created just a few years ago are not mobile friendly. They simply weren’t designed to be responsive.
The responsive website solution versus the mobile app solution
That creates well-known problems for mobile visitors–for example, adapting web pages to their mobile screen size, finding things on a page, moving through the site, and especially accessing and using some of the special features of a site. Often, the experience is just not easy or pleasant. The same problem faced by a brick-and-mortar store would alarm its proprietors and rightly alarms those responsible for a business’s website.
Our discussion, here, looks at the fundamental choice that a business and its IT staff face when deciding upon their “fix” for the mobile-visitor issue. In broad strokes, the choice looks easy. A website can be made mobile friendly, or perhaps just “more” mobile friendly, by adapting its website to be more responsive, easier and more enjoyable, for mobile visits. Or, a business may elect to create essentially a new way for mobile users to connect with and use the website. That new way is to invest in development of an computer app that the mobile visitor downloads with literally a click and that henceforward offers the visitor a customized experience specifically adapted to his or her phone.
The latter choice is the native mobile app. A “native app” is an app for a certain type of mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. It is installed by being downloaded directly to the device. Most often, mobile users acquire the app through an online store (e.g., such an The App Store or Android Apps).
If you react as do many people to a barebones statement of the choice, you are thinking that adapting your website to mobile visitors seems easier–and probably quicker and less expensive–that turning to a whole new approach that requires you to invest in creating an app. That is not an unfair overall summary of the situation. It is usually somewhat quicker and cheaper to go the “responsive web “route. The alternative, a mobile app, requires that a team develop the new app customized for your product and work with you on the mechanics of offering it to your customers and potential customers or other users and visitors.
The complexity of the mobile app solution, however, results from addressing the full complexity–all the challenges–of making your site a gracious host not only to one type of mobile device, but many; not only to one size mobile screen, but any size; not only to the basics of the site, but all features; and to achieving the easiest, direct link between your site and a smartphone or other mobile screen.
That is, the native app solution takes on the full complexity of the problem, with all variations–but at the cost of more work. The responsive web is something of a makeshift. Mobile use becomes possible, and more or less easier, for certain large categories of mobile devices. Here are some specifics:
The responsive web solution is embedded within the internet connection. In fact, it draws all the information it needs from the browser. Where there is no internet connection, the customer will not be accessing your product. Your goal, everything else being equal, probably is to be found and available to users anywhere, anytime. As we will see, the native app solution supports that.
This may constitute the decisive difference between the responsive web and native app. The responsive web tends to perform poorly for mobile devices where a website uses features such as images and animations that are very slow to connect given their size. Also, a mobile visitor to your site has to wait for the browser to download a whole website page, including those clunky elements, before seeing anything. A solution to this that simply a compromise with limitations is to curtail creative elements such a photos and video on your site. And new digital marketing tools like voice recognition and “augmented reality” are simply no go on the responsive web. They are increasingly useful tools that require a native app.
The navigation problem
One earliest issue that mobile users noticed on web sites was difficulty in just getting around a page when their smartphone screen was so much smaller and differently configured. User interface (UI) and user experience (UI) differ from device to device, depending upon the operating system. Opting for a website adaptation means the experience of your site for users of different devices will feel unnatural–not “native” to their device.
Some lost functionality
Responsive web solutions tend to sacrifice giving the mobile user access to mobile phone functions outside the browser, such as the camera or calendar. There are other technical limits on the responsive web, mentioned earlier, such as trouble accommodating certain site tools. A chief effect of these limitations, taken together, can be to stifle creative design of your site because of anticipated adverse experiences of mobile visitors.
Some pros and cons of native mobile apps
Overall, as we have suggested, native apps as a solution to mobile connection problems are usually more expensive and longer in development than the responsive web solution. The costs arise in creating a custom design and codebase for each operating system and obtaining approvals that each operating system requires. The payoff is quality and speed and opening of opportunities to use capabilities of smartphones and other system. To a significant degree, advantages of a mobile app are mirror images of the drawbacks of the web responsive approach:
Native mobile apps do not require that users necessarily have an internet connection. When an app has been downloaded onto the users’s device, and stored there, it is always available to access. The user is carrying your online offerings offline in a mobile device.
Native mobile apps solve problems of functionality that limit responsive web solutions. One such problem is waiting for a browser to download a web page. Designed with mobile performance as their reason for existing, apps are agile, swift, and provide a superior user experience.
Again, the native mobile app handles “functionality” far better, accessing all of a mobile device’s functions for the reason that the app, after all, is installed on the device and working in conjunction with it.
A far from marginal advantage of the native mobile app, today, is built-in security. When users connect with a business via the internet, they are exposed to all the web’s lurking trackers. But when that user has downloaded your business’s app, the connection between you is made without third party involvement.
Your brand and its visibility
An app when downloaded onto a device such as a smartphone often is represented by an icon on the phone’s screen. Remarkably, that means that your brand’s icon is seen by the phone’s owner repeatedly throughout the day. In contrast, the responsive web solution leaves customers and potential customers to connect in the conventional way, by recalling your brand’s name, searching for it on Google, selecting your brand from the search engine results, and clicking on it. The process is repeated each time the user wants to visit your site.
This suggests one perspective that the greater investment in creating the customized app for mobile users of your site That investment buys a truly special connection with customers and potential customers: your brand’s permanent presence on the screen of each customer’s smartphone literally one click away from connection.
It may appear that pros and cons of a responsive web solution versus a mobile app solution very much tilt in favor of the app. That does not necessarily resolve the issue for every enterprise. For example, a firm with a website largely serving “in-house” connectivity and communication–not marketing and sales–may opt for savings available by accepting the responsive web solution as a “good enough” accommodation of mobile device users who must use the site for work.
In other words, the superiority of the mobile app is more decisive for the firm marketing and selling its products or services on its website–and staking its future on increasing the volume of website transactions potentially without limit. In this context, the one-time investment in a mobile app confers a permanent and increasing advantage through ease and appeal of the customer experience.