Mobile Application or Mobile Website or Both?

With the continued popularity of smartphones, more and more retailers are launching either mobile websites or mobile applications by the day. Many who haven’t yet taken the plunge are wondering what to invest their resources in first.

Aside from “doing nothing,” retailers have 2 options when considering mobile commerce: building an application (or “app”), or creating a website specifically for mobile devices. As Graham Charlton of Econsultancy has observed in the UK, some etailers are opting to bypass the mobile optimized website and go straight to a mobile app. This post continues the conversation and examines the differences of each and how you might choose between them.

Do Not Nothing

Smartphones are built for web browsing and users will generally be able to access your web site through a mobile browser even if you do not do anything. But this is not the optimal user experience, as pages designed for the web render very poorly on small screens:

Above left: Sephora.com website as viewed through mobile browser. Above right: Mobile optimized website at m.sephora.com viewed on mobile device.

While doing nothing is an option, any retailer who anticipates driving any sales through mobile devices needs either a mobile optimized version or a mobile application.

Mobile Applications

A mobile application is essentially software developed to run on mobile devices. Apps were popularized by the iPhone and Blackberry, but also may be developed for the Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems.

Mobile applications may serve as a mobile storefront, allowing in-app purchases. For example, the iPhone eBay app generated $400 million in revenue in 2009. It’s a tiny bit of eBay’s $59.7 billion in revenue but still impressive for an application people voluntarily install on their iPhones.

Pros & cons

Pro: User experience

The main advantage of building an app is the user experience. Most mobile browsers can’t handle JavaScript and Flash. A properly built app gives a developer control over the way text and images are displayed, as well as the use of sounds and videos. Apps can utilize the whole screen of the phone and remove other distractions from the shopper like address bars. There are also no compatibility issues when apps are dedicated to the device they were developed for. Screen size and features are consistent for all users.

Pro: Hardware features

GPS, camera and “shake” functionality can all be baked into apps. For example, a customer could add an item to cart by shaking her phone. For multichannel retailers with local stores, mobile applications can offer a GPS based store finder, or “augmented reality” where you can view a street through your iPhone’s camera and it will tell you the nearest gas station or fast food restaurant.

Pro: Loyalty

A customer who actively downloads and installs an app has a pretty good chance of using it. The app on the “desktop” is top-of-mind.

Pro: Off-line usage

Even when wi-fi or 3G is unavailable, a customer can browse your catalog or other application features which do not require Internet access.

Con: Development resources

Mobile apps take longer to develop than mobile websites. Not only because the look and feel of the app will usually have to be built from scratch, but also because you will need to create multiple apps to reach a wide audience. The iPhone currently dominates the app market, but with the large amount of other devices and app stores popping up, that will not last forever. Some think that Android-based mobile phones will surpass the iPhone in market share by 2012.

Con: Adoption and usage

Before a customer can experience your app, she has to download and install it. You will mainly reach your most loyal customers who are fairly invested in your brand. Just as with PCs, most people think twice before they install an app on their phone.

Con: Nascent market

Despite all the press coverage, the app market in total is not that big. Only 13.3% of the phones sold in Q3 of 2009 were smartphones, and of those only 17.1% were iPhones. With Apple controlling the app market for now, that’s a very small number of potential customers.

Mobile Optimized Website

As mentioned earlier here on Get Elastic, there are many ways to build a mobile optimized site which each have their own pros and cons.

Pro: Less required resources

Mobile sites will most likely be quicker to implement compared to building an app with a unique look and feel. Note that due to the wide variety of handsets available, you may have to optimize your website for more than one phone and/or screen size. In most cases, depending on your ecommerce platform, you should be able to reuse large parts of your existing infrastructure and focus on changing the website’s look and feel so that it fits a smaller screen.

If that’s not fast enough for you there are services like Usablenet and Mobile Aware that will take your existing ecommerce site and build a mobile optimized version in a few weeks without you having to lift a finger.

Pro: Accessible to all

If a user is not heavily invested in your brand chances are slim that they are willing to download an app just to be able to find the nearest store or buy the thing they’ve just seen an ad for. But a mobile site is accessible on any device with a mobile browser, including non-smartphones, as most of these have some form of WAP-browsing. Though WAP is fast becoming a long forgotten technology it’s still worth considering depending on the customers you’re trying to reach.

Con: Limited functionality

Even though all smartphones have browsers, most of them are very simplistic and cannot handle the same complexity and dynamic behavior as browsers on a PC. Flash is especially an issue, as hardly any of the smartphone browsers support it. Even some JavaScript that should be simple can be problematic.

Being confined to working with what the phone browser can handle means you cannot use any of the phone’s other features such as GPS for a location-based store locator. It also means the customer must have network coverage to continue to use your website. If the connection drops for any reason you could potentially lose a sale. As mentioned previously, building an app would help you avoid these restrictions as an app has better access to other features the phone offers, as well as being able to store information locally until the phone regains network access.

Con: Customer satisfaction

A mobile optimized site may not have the same appeal for a loyal customer who might expect a greater interaction or immersion on your brand.

How do you choose?

It should be clear now that neither solution alone is perfect for reaching all your customers, and if resources were not an issue the optimal solution would be to do both. So the question really becomes “If I can’t have both, how do I choose?”

The short answer is (as always): It depends on your target audience.

Apps are great when you have a segment of loyal customers who interact with you on a regular basis and want a fuller experience on their mobile. You can provide special news, content, offers etc. to these customers, leveraging the hardware of a device such as GPS, camera and “shake.” (Hint: Survey your customers through email, on-site surveys or social media like Facebook or Twitter).

In some cases, your customers are already screaming for a mobile app and are making their voices heard in online communities like the Sephora Facebook page:

Unless there is sufficient customer demand, an optimized mobile website is your best bet. It requires less commitment from a potential customer and allows access to all.

Besides considering your target audience, it’s also vital to consider the impact on your brand and how your mobile strategy in general fits with the rest of your offerings. You can still offer special content, products, offers to a select group of customers in other ways like SMS/text messages, email newsletter, physical newsletter, personal promotion codes, etc.

Dennis Newel is a business analyst and ecommerce consultant at Elastic Path Software.

Don’t forget:This month we are presenting a webinar on application stores: App store – a new way to sell software, media, and anything digital where we will discuss the app store as an ecommerce platform and its business models.


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19 Responses to “Mobile Application or Mobile Website or Both?”

  1. Hi Dennis, that’s a great analysis. I agree with your conclusion to start with a mobile site unless you know your shoppers. A mobile app’s better functionality is offset by its device specificity and installation prerequisite. If you want to be in m-commerce you need a site even if you have an app for every device.

  2. Compliments for your instructive post, Dennis!
    The easiest, most effective and cheapest solution for most retailers is to have a .tel domain. This tool is suitable for all media applications, including mobile phones. It organizes email, phone, Skype, etc., lets you guide customers to relevant places on the internet and has many more advantages. Making combinations with a mobile application or a mobile website of course could optimize the user experience.
    Have a look at http://www.about-tel.edje.tel for nice, informative videos about .tel. Some information for retailers can be found at http://www.telnic.org/telforyou-small-businesses-retail.html
    It takes, say, half an hour to get your contact information, links, folders, etc. as well as your lay-out preferences stored. Some providers offer a .tel domain at 5,50 Euro.
    Kind regards,
    Edwin van Rooyen
    http://www.edje.tel

  3. Anonymous Coward says:

    I think you’re confusing “dominating the app market” with dominating device penetration. While iPhone users download many applications, most of which seem to be gimmicks and toys, the iPhone only has a small fraction of the smart phone market. If you write a mobile application, wouldn’t you be wise to look at operating system market share? Symbian blows away iPhone in the actual number of users, and RIM/Blackberry is also way ahead.

    Reviewing site visitor operating systems could be helpful, but some devices might have a low number of visits because the site in question looks awful an them.

    • Dennis Newel says:

      You’re absolutely right that the number of iPhone users are no where near Blackberry or Symbian but when it comes to actual sales/delivery of apps (whether sold or free) Apple sits comfortably on the market with 99.4% of all app sales/deliveries in 2009. Even though apps have existed for a long time, for all the various platforms, it was Apply who made them fashionable and are currently enjoying first-mover advantages for that. This obviously won’t last and I’m sure the same statistics for 2010 will be very different.

      Many apps may be gimmicks and toys but until the other app stores begin to catch up with Apple, the best bet is still to start out with the most active market first. Symbian based phones may dominate the smartphone market but the Ovi store just doesn’t have the same visibility and buzz that the Apple App Store has at the moment.

      I would still advise to mainly look at your current visitors (perhaps more on those who bounce using a mobile browser) as well as engaging with your existing customers to find out what they really need. If the majority of your customer base turns out to have Blackberries that would naturally be the platform to create an app for. Statistics can help you some of the way but nothing beats talking to your customers

  4. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for the hat-tip, and you’ve made some excellent observations that I missed in my article. I think the consensus from the comments was that having both a site and app was possibly the best catch-all solution, though I would like to see more UK retailers creating mobile websites and seeking to reach the broadest possible audience. This is an area where US retailers seem to be doing much more.

    • Dennis Newel says:

      Hi Graham,

      You’re absolutely right; especially considering the mobile proliferation and use in the UK (and the rest of Europe for that matter). There’s also a different mix of handsets in play with Nokia having a much larger market share, and the iPhone has been introduced late in the market. Starting out with a mobile site will make you reach more customers for sure.
      Do you have any statistics for UK/EU specific market share of mobile OSs? I have a feeling that the iPhone is not as popular as in the US and that another platform might be the first one to build an app for?

      • I’ll have a look for some stats on that, though I still think the iPhone is the platform of choice for apps in the UK. There are a number of other popular web-enabled handsets, but no one contender to the iPhone, which does have a higher proportion of mobile internet use than others.
        For instance, Auto Trader, a motoring website in the UK, just launched an iPhone app after finding that half of all mobile visits to its site were from iPhones.

  5. Jack says:

    We’ve been debating this very topic and have decided to go with a mobile site. There is no right answer at this point…we just know we have to do something and the mobile site seems like the right path.

  6. I run a restaurant online ordering company in Dallas. Lately, we have received many inquiries about this topic – “Mobile site or Application”? While we have done both – I am very interested in technologies like phonegap that let developers build Applications/Web-Apps on a platform using HTML 5 and Java, which also enable the developer take advantage of features on the smartphone, and these applications/web-apps can run on different operating systems (Blackberry, Palm, Droid and iPhone).

  7. Nowadays, a mobile website is compulsory. People are using more and more their mobile phone. in fact, they develop a more and more nomadic usage. For a company, to possess a mobile website is a good means to seduce new customers.

  8. pronostic says:

    Sorry for this second comment but i just wanted to say that possess both (mobile website and mobile application) it’s the ideal but small companies can’t assign such a budget.

  9. jstar says:

    With the reinvention of tablet pcs and a more competitive smartphone market, mobile websites will certainly be a more cost effective strategy for businesses. This way they can accomodate for most mobile devices with a single site, rather than create specialised apps for each OS. However due to the app centric nature of the iPhone and Android, apps could be made for this which simply port the site to the app. Apps would need little maintenance, and the businesses can target device specific users.

  10. Aaron says:

    Great article but a little outdated,
    the functionality for mobile websites has come a long way since March 2010.
    Mobile websites are now able to do everything that an application can do at a fraction of the cost (except for “shake” functionality).
    Also the market for mobile technology has since raised and it is looking that 85% of mobile phones purchased as of 2011 will have browsing functionality and can support mobile websites.

  11. Erin says:

    I have done a lot of research on this, trying to determine the best route for my business. I finally settled on Simple Mobile Web (http://www.simplemobileweb.com/), which allowed me to do both. I pay a small fee a month (compared to the 5k I would have spent had I done the services separately). I designed my website with my branding, and their website builder (actually, super easy). AND, i built an app that works on all phone types. Everywhere else I looked, they only did the mobile app or the website. I did both.

  12. Sorry if this forum could not be the area of the website but I need this one of you to help me. heard that there was a product about how things are done right in electronics and distribution online. I don’t know if that is here…

    • Hi Serina, can you be more specific? Are you looking for a post re: digital goods distribution? Try a search on the blog for “digital content” or “digital goods” and you’ll get a bunch.

  13. Is there a possibility that very careful development can get you a single codebase via a web app with use of similar/same code in Adobe AIR?

    1. Mobile app
    +
    2. Adobe AIR + Extra Features

    At this point I haven’t explored Adobe AIR, but with Apple relaxing the restrictions blocking the usage of Adobe AIR, it sounds appealing again because it defragments the development process.

    Thoughts?

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