CyberTrend: Mobile Web App Pros & Cons

Author(s): Altaz Valani


NEARLY EVERY mobile device user is familiar with mobile websites and standard (or native) mobile apps, the former accessible via a Web browser and the latter downloaded from app stores. Arguably fewer users are as experienced with mobile Web apps. In terms of reaching customers, clients, and employees via mobile means, each of these avenues has distinct pros and cons. The following focuses on what mobile Web apps entail in relation to the other two options and why businesses might consider developing them.

Likes & Dislikes Although there are similarities, several traits distinguish mobile Web apps from mobile websites and native mobile apps. Native apps, says Ray Valdes, Gartner research vice president, can tap into the abilities of the underlying mobile device platform they’re installed on to provide the highest performance levels, richest user experience, and highest degree of functionality. Only a native app can access some functions in a device platform, he says. A December 2013 report from Forrester Research cites such abilities as performing offline tasks, multisensor interactions, push notifications, and application integration as mobile app strengths.

Mobile websites, meanwhile, are those that are viewable and usable on a mobile device. At one time, they were built and operated as separate sites in parallel with classic desktop-oriented websites, Valdes says. Today, “responsive Web design” enables creating “an all-in-one digital channel,” meaning a mobile website is viewable on different devices and adapts to a device’s unique form factor, Valdes says. A mobile Web app is similar to a mobile website but adopts an interaction model more like a desktop application, Valdes says. Thus, “instead of the page-by-page hypertext-driven interaction model of content-centric websites, the Web app may have a ‘single-page’ structure for the user experience,” he says.

Depending on how a business implements each option, slow performance, limited user experience, and more narrow scope of functionality can result, Valdes says. Generally, though, a native app approach offers a faster, richer experience than a mobile Web app, which offers similar advantages over a mobile website. A mobile website is often cheaper to build and easier to update than a mobile Web app, which has similar benefits over a native app. Overall, these choices don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Valdes says. Many large, successful companies implement all three to cover a full range of requirements.

Altaz Valani, Info-Tech Research Group senior consulting analyst, says it’s possible to distinguish the three options by viewing them as layers, each offering a different perspective. At a capability level, for example, apps have access to device functionality (GPS, notification, etc.), while mobile websites are more limited. From a connectivity perspective, apps can operate in offline mode, while websites are mostly always on. Architecturally, “a mobile Web app has a layer that sits between the Web application and native APIs, while a native app has direct access to native APIs,” he says.

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