Understanding The Difference Between Apps and Mobile Websites

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One of the single most popular articles in Adaptistration’s history is from July 22, 2011. Titled Understanding The Difference Between Apps and Mobile Websites, it has served as a useful resource for clarifying an otherwise confusing topic and since the original publication date, quite a bit has changed in so it is time for an update.

The biggest change to take place in the field of mobile browsing since 2011 is the rise of responsive web design, which responds to the device that accesses it and delivers the appropriate output. The real game changer here is that responsive design draws all of the content from a single source, rather than requiring the site owner to design multiple versions for different types of browsers specifications.

Better still, a responsive web platform won’t play favorites so it doesn’t matter if the device is made by Apple, Motorola, Samsung, or who-knows-what, the end result is the same.

The Big Differences

The most fundamental aspect to understand is apps function separately from your existing website and a mobile website is a variation of your existing website. Here are some additional characteristics to consider for each platform.

Mobile Websites Using Responsive Designs

This option can be reached directly through a mobile device’s web browser and is therefore accessible by all smartphones and tablets equipped with browsing capability and an internet connection.


  • A single mobile site can work on any mobile platform (but you can development multiple versions if desired).
  • Comparatively less expense to develop than an app.
  • Can be found and accessed via search engines, websites, and blogs.
  • No outside authority needed to distribute.
  • Ready to go the moment a user accesses it.
  • Never bothers user with manually update.
  • Content managed from your existing content management system.


  • Requires mobile-first design strategy to completely maximize (not really a negative so much as an eyes-wide-open.
  • You cannot access all of the smartphone’s native functionality (camera & gyroscope).
  • Can’t piggy back on status of third party app distributor.


An app is a software application that must be written in the native language of a particular platform; the two predominant platforms are Apple (iPhone), Google (Android), and Microsoft (Windows).


  • Using native code sometimes results in higher performance.
  • App is distributed through native app stores and potentially enhances distribution.
  • Utilize some native functionality (camera & gyroscope).


  • More expensive to develop.
  • More expensive to maintain.
  • Requires user to download from platform specific app store before accessing.
  • Requires user to update manually.
  • Must be developed separately for each platform.
  • Useless on desktop and notebook browsers.
  • App stores charge large fees for publishing, certifying, and updating.
  • Require approval of platform before you can distribute.
  • Require manual download by user before it can function.

App or Mobile Website Utilizing Responsive Design (or both)?

In 2011, the choice was fairly balanced but since then, the dominant platform is clearly mobile websites utilizing responsive design. Mobile websites enjoy a much greater reach compared to apps and that translates into substantially higher numbers of unique visitors.

Moreover, consumers overwhelmingly prefer mobile web interface for shopping, searching, and engagement oriented activity.

Although they’ve lost ground in the value added game since 2011, apps still tend to be an ideal solution for organizations that require very specific content delivery needs, such as the ability to stream HD quality video via a subscriber only type of membership.


For now, mobile websites utilizing responsive design dominate the issue of user access and digital accessibility and in a day and age where accessibility is a key element for many performing arts organization’s strategy, mobile web solutions are not only cost effective, but far more likely to help an institution reach overall strategic goals.

In the end, I hope this updated overview has clarified the difference between an app and a mobile website as well as demonstrate how important responsive web design is on the future of web development. If you have any additional questions, feel free to send them in.


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