Mobile Website vs. Native App vs. Mobile Web App

This article was updated on 10/09/15.

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

The mobile market is booming, with over 4.5 billion mobile users worldwide in 2014. In the United States, which has a mature and steady market, 169 million 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:

  • 29% of online searches being made, are from mobile devices
  • In 2013 it was estimated that by 2015, mobile marketing will generate over $400 billion in the United States alone
  • The amount of time spent online via mobile has officially surpassed that of desktops in 2015. With mobile digital media time at 51% compared to desktop’s 42%.

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 initially distinguishing one from the other in, there are some very important distinctions that must be made between them when planning a mobile strategy.

What is the Difference?

Mobile Website

Theoretically, 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. It is a customized version of a regular website that is used specifically for mobile. Many companies today use responsive website designs in which their website is created to function on multiple platforms and screens. It is a versatile option that makes the most out of any given design.

Native App

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.) Apps are a separate entity from a company’s website, but are often used to supplement the brand in some way. Perhaps there is a game associated with your company, or you can provide your services to individuals through a smaller platform, rather than requiring them to go through your website.

Mobile Web App

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. They are real websites that look, feel, and function like any other application. The main difference is through their implementation on the back end.

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 when they try to reach your site through a mobile device.
  • 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. This makes your same website react to any changes in the size of the screen it is being viewed. From mobile devices, to any desktop window size customizations done by the user.

(Note:Google 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. This may take time, and resources, to accomplish, but it will increase the versatility of your brand by making it easily accessible for your audience on any given platform.

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 affect your overall visibility to your qualified online traffic.


The need for speed. Even the best mobile website design is at the mercy of the networks being used to access it. Often the network access, quality, and speed varies from location to location. Compounding the speed issue is the fact that mobile users are much more demanding than those coming to 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 if the loading process is sloppy, or if it takes too long.

If you don't optimize a site's functionality on mobile devices and end up making visitors work and wait too long for information, they're gone. You will lose their attention almost immediately.

When you need one:

Almost every business needs a mobile website; especially businesses that consumers are likely to search on the go. This includes 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. Individuals need to be able to find your website quickly, and need it to perform efficiently so that they can find the quick information that they are looking for.

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.

web app vs native


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. They do not need to update the app in a way that native apps require whenever changes and improvements are made.


While a mobile web app is usually the best cost-efficient 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. The fact that the technology industry is constantly changing is something that people have grown accustomed to, however it results in businesses and audiences alike finding the need to keep up.

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. Websites are designed for the desktop first, mobile websites second. 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. They exist outside of an individual’s browser, and have their own place on that person’s mobile home screen.

mobile apps vs. mobile websites - native apps


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. They are made specifically for mobile audiences from the very beginning, rather than being redesigned in order to fit that platform.


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). This can be a tedious process, and you can receive a lot of pushback from audiences who are frustrated if they can’t yet access your app on their particular device.

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. Also, any changes in functionality or design that are made to the app require the user to update them manually rather than automatically.

When you need one:

If you're developing a game (Pop The Lock, anyone?) or an app that fills a very narrow niche, like a weather app, the native app option would be 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. A lot of companies also choose the path to begin as an app, then branch out into creating a website as their business continues to grow.

native app vs. mobile website

What do I Choose?

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, and technical requirements to name a few.

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 is right for your business, it's pretty clear that the future of mobile is here.

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

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