Mobile Website vs. Native App vs. Mobile Web App

BFM MObile v App

This article was updated on 9/1/14. 

If you haven't already, it’s time to start thinking about building out mobile platforms for your business.

The mobile market (primarily smartphones and tablets)  is booming, with over 4.5 billion mobile users worldwide in 2014. In the United States, which has a mature and steady market, 169 milllion people own smartphones, which is 70% of the mobile market penetration, according to research firm comScore.

And this staggering growth is changing the way we access information:

  • 1 in 4 online searches are via mobile devices
  • By 2015 mobile marketing will generate over $400 the United States alone
  • The amount of time spent online via mobile internet access has doubled from 2010 to 2014

That’s a lot of incentive to optimize the delivery of your content to mobile platforms.

mobile marketing growth
The question remaining is not whether you should migrate to mobile, but how?

The two most obvious choices are mobile websites and native apps. While many people would have trouble distinguishing one from the other in visual terms, there are some very important distinctions that must be made between them when planning a mobile strategy. And, of course, you could try a web mobile app that may be just as efficient for your needs, but cost significantly less.

Mobile Website vs. Native App vs. Mobile Web App

If you’re reading this you likely know the basics but here is a quick review. A mobile website is pretty much the same as any other website – it uses browser-based HTML pages that can be accessed by handheld devices and tablets. Unlike a website built for viewing on a desktop, the mobile site is designed to appear on a much smaller handheld display.

As for native apps, they are downloaded applications – from Apple’s App Store, Android Apps on Google Play, etc. - that are installed on a mobile device and can’t be accessed within a browser. Note: the name is derived from the fact that these apps are written in the language of the operating system of the device they are installed on.

Mobile web apps appear similar to the native app, but they differ in the manner in which they are built and rendered. These apps are viewed through a mobile web browser and are built in HTML/CSS.

Mobile Website

There are three ways to approach building a mobile website:

  • Create a separate mobile website with its own URL that redirects mobile visitors.
  • Instead of the redirect use CSS files to make the same desktop URL available to mobile users.
  • Use responsive website design to create a website that adapts to browser window width by using CSS3 media queries.

Note: Google recently recommended responsive design as a best practice for mobile SEO when building out websites for smartphones.


Building a mobile website is pretty similar to building a website designed for the desktop. If you want to make your website mobile-friendly, in 95% of cases, a mobile website will accomplish your goals.

Adding a mobile website will also improve Search Engine Optimization performance because your website will be placed in relevant mobile and local directories on search engines, which will increase overall visibility for your online business traffic.


The need for speed. Even the best mobile website design is at the mercy of the networks being used to access it, and often network access and speed varies from location to location. Compounding the speed issue is the fact that mobile users are much more demanding than those accessing your site on a desktop because they're usually on the go and looking for a quick answer. A desktop user at home will not be put off by an extra click here and there when a usability issue is encountered. A mobile user will leave your mobile website mid-page load if it takes too long.

If you don't optimize its functionality and end up making visitors work and wait too long for information, they're gone.

When you need one:

Almost every business needs a mobile website; especially businesses that consumers are likely to search on the go like restaurants, retailers, entertainment, etc. There are exceptions, which we will see later with native apps. People can already view your website on a mobile device, it just doesn't look too good because it's not designed and optimized for mobile.

Mobile Web App

These mobile web apps look very much like native apps (see below) but can be built at a much faster and cheaper rate in HTML/CSS. In fact, a mobile web app can be launched just as quickly as a website. Because most Android-based products and iOS (iPhone and iPad) leverage sophisticated mobile browsers (ie. Mobile Chrome and Mobile Safari), mobile web apps are a great alternative to the much more expensive route of building a native app.


The planning and launch of a mobile web app is similar to the average custom designed website, and ultimately produces a look and feel just like the more expensive and time-consuming native app. For the most part, it performs and functions just like a native app, only different in that it is rendered through a mobile browser. Once a mobile web app is launched, it's also easy to make edits and changes that are immediately available to the user.


While overall a mobile web app is usually the best budget option for most businesses there are some drawbacks to consider.  Mobile web apps, like mobile websites, can only be accessed when there is a good network connection and/or WiFi available. They also don't run well on old devices and browsers, so you better hope your visits are coming from people with the latest smartphone/tablet technology.

When you need one:

The mobile web app differs from a mobile version of a website because it is designed specifically for the mobile platform. If you already have a website, a mobile web app can be built relatively easily using much of the same code.

Native App

As we've mentioned, the native app is written in the language of the operating system of the device it is installed on -Android, iOS, etc.  These apps are usually downloaded through an online store - the Apple App Store or Android Apps on Google Play- and installed directly onto the device.


The native app can interface with the device’s features, information and hardware (camera, GPS-location, etc.). Native apps can run without an Internet connection and generally have a more friendly UX design than mobile web apps.


The native app is costly and can take a good deal of time  to develop.  You'll also have to create the same app several times for each operating system because each app must use the native programming language of the device: Java (Android), Objective-C (iOS), and Visual C++ (Windows Mobile).

Other long-term drawbacks include the app store process. Designed to assure user quality and safety every update must be reviewed and approved. The manual downloading and installation of  the app also means that many users will be operating on different versions.

When you need one:

If you're developing a game (Candy Crush, anyone?) or an app that fills a very narrow niche, like a weather app, than  the native app is ideal. The bonus developers receive is the ability to charge a download price, with the app stores handling the payment process - for a fee, of course.


The decision to go with a native app, a responsive design mobile website, or a mobile web app really depends on many business factors: objectives, target audience, technical requirements.

Of course, you can choose not to decide and build a native app and mobile web app. Remember, that's what Facebook did. However, businesses with modest budgets may just go with the more affordable option of building out a responsive mobile site. Whatever you decide, it's pretty much a forgone conclusion that the future of mobile is here.

Any thoughts? Let us know below or send a message to @BFMweb.

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