Mobile Site vs. Native App: How to decide which to develop first?

Posted / 25 September, 2019

Author / Enginess

In 2018, the percentage of all web pages served to mobile phones jumped to 52%, up from less than 1% in 2009. It is without a doubt that today, we are living in a mobile-first world. Your digital strategy should reflect this new reality.

In our previous post "Creating a Mobile Strategy for your Business" we went over how your mobile strategy should be at the forefront of your digital strategy. In 2018, the percentage of all web pages served to mobile phones jumped to 52%, up from less than 1% in 2009.


It is without a doubt that we are living in a mobile-first world. Your digital strategy should reflect this new reality.

Therefore, you are probably wondering what is the best route to building a great mobile experience for your users? In this post, we’re going to tackle that question by walking you through one of the biggest conundrums you will face when you’re trying to prioritize mobile:

  1. Should you opt for a mobile site as your priority? OR
  2. Should you dive into the world of mobile app development? 

What’s the difference between a mobile site and a native app?

First things first, before you try to decide between building a mobile site or a native app, it’s useful to understand the major differences between the two.

What are mobile sites?

Mobile sites are similar to any other website: they are made up of linked HTML pages that users access through an internet browser, and they can display data, text, images, videos.

But unlike traditional websites, mobile sites are actively designed to be compatible with the smaller displays and touchscreen interfaces of mobile devices. Mobile sites can also incorporate a handful of features that traditional websites cannot, from location-based services to click-to-call features.

It is worth keeping in mind that responsive web design (an approach to web design that ensures that site elements are fluid across any screen size or aspect ratio) is becoming increasingly standard—and expected by users). A few years ago, it made sense to distinguish between mobile and traditional sites. But today, most websites are designed to be flexible enough for both traditional desktop users and mobile users on any device type.

What are Native Apps?

Native apps work differently. Rather than accessing content through a web browser, users download and install these applications straight onto their mobile device, usually through a portal like the iOS App Store or Android’s Google Play.
Native apps are also designed to run on specific operating systems (think iOS or Android). This generally lets native apps access all of the features and functionality of that operating system—but it also means that if you want your app to work across different operating systems, you will have to build a separate app for each one.

Right off the bat, there are obvious differences between mobile sites and native apps. But their basic functionality is the same: they are designed to give users a mobile-friendly experience.

So, how should you decide which to develop first? You can start by weighing up the pros and cons of each one.

Five Advantages of Mobile Sites

Let’s start by diving into the major advantages that mobile sites have over native apps.

There are multiple metrics can be used to compare sites and apps—from monetization potential to method of delivery—but we’ve narrowed it down to five key metrics for mobile sites:

  1. Development costs
  2. Accessibility
  3. Compatibility
  4. Maintenance concerns
  5. Audience reach

1) Mobile sites are cost-effective and fast to build

Mobile site development tends to be less resource-intensive than building a native app. Mobile sites are generally quicker to build than an app, saving you time and helping you to get your project off the ground faster. If you are using an outside development team, you will usually be charged less for mobile site development than app development.

In addition, if you want your app to work across multiple devices and operating systems (ie. iOS, Android), you will have to build a separate version for each system, and it becomes pretty clear that you’ll save significant cash by sticking to a mobile site.

2) Mobile Sites can be accessed instantly

If a user wants to access your app, they’ll have to take the time to go into an app store and download it—a significant barrier to overcome. But with a mobile site, they can get access through an internet browser with just one tap. This means that with a mobile site, it is easier for users to move from initial engagement to interaction and conversion.

3) Mobile Sites are compatible across devices

Mobile sites work on any device with an internet browser. If you go the native app route, on the other hand, you will need to develop a separate app for each device type that you want to build your presence on.

4) Mobile Sites are easy to update and maintain

Depending on how you build your application, a mobile site gives you more flexibility to make changes to your content. Traditionally, with an app, any changes to design or content will need to be pushed out to users through an app update that would require your users to download and install. On a mobile site, any changes that you want to make can be rolled out instantly, and getting new content out to users is lightning fast. Cost is also a factor here: apps are complicated to maintain once they have been built, and you’ll need to spend more time and money upgrading, testing, and dealing with compatibility issues with an app.

5) Mobile Sites tend to reach a wider audience

Websites are generally easier for users to find through a search engine than a native app—so when a user digs around for your web presence, they’re more likely to make their way to a mobile site than they are to track down your native app.

Mobile sites also have a wider reach because they have a stronger, longer-lasting presence. A mobile site can never be deleted, unlike a native app, which can be uninstalled and forgotten easily: according to TechCrunch, users only hang on to iPhone apps for an average of thirty days.

Four Advantages of Building Native Apps

As the list above makes clear, mobile sites have several compelling advantages over native apps. But don’t let that scare you off of developing a native app completely. There’s still a strong case to be made for building a native app. It all depends on what your objectives are, and what you want your users to get out of their experience.

Here are a few scenarios where it makes sense to take the plunge and develop a native app right off the bat…

1) Build a native app if you need access to device features and functionality

This is one of the biggest benefits of native apps: they can take advantage of all of the functionality built into a device and its operating system. A native app can access functions like GPS and other location services, device libraries, cameras and microphones, and more. Because native apps can also take advantage of a device’s processing power (and can store important data offline) they generally run faster than mobile sites, as well.

If these are things that would enhance your user’s experience—or if they are central to your value proposition—a native app is an option well worth exploring.

2) Build a native app if you are targeting regular users who would benefit from personalization

The second major perk of a native app is that it allows users to personalize and customize their experience. This is why companies that provide things like social networks, personal finance services, or music streaming services have so much success with native apps. Their users tend to use their apps regularly, and they want their experience on the app to be tailored to their personalized needs.

3) Build a native app if you or your users want push notifications

While push notifications can be the bane of a user’s existence, they can also prove useful depending on your goals. Some web browsers can send notifications, but a native app allows you to send out push notifications at any time, to any user who has the app installed and push notifications enabled.

4) Build a native app if you see offline access as an important perk

If one of your goals is to provide your users with offline access to content or features, a native app is a way to go. Since mobile sites are accessed through an internet browser, your users won’t be able to get any offline access—but with a native app, data is stored locally and can be accessed without an internet connection.

What about hybrid apps?

Of course, there aren’t just two ways to provide a mobile experience. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention an obvious third option: hybrid apps.

Unlike native apps, hybrid apps are designed to work across multiple platforms. Rather than being developed for a single operating system, hybrid apps are built using a single code language and various third-party integration that allow for device-specific interactions.

Hybrid apps combine some of the biggest perks of both the native app and mobile site worlds. As a mobile site, they’re relatively inexpensive to build (compared to a native app) and they can be used across devices. Like native apps, they allow for some great features like offline access and personalization.

But hybrid apps come with some issues that should give you pause to think. They are cheaper to develop than native apps, but they can be more expensive and resource-intensive to maintain in the long run. They might not provide optimal or consistent user experience, because the base code is the same across all platforms. And they tend to be a bit buggier than native apps and mobile sites.

Building a Mobile Site vs. Native App: How to Make the Choice

The key takeaway is that there are a handful of distinct advantages for both mobile sites and native apps. The choice between prioritizing a mobile site or an app isn’t always clear cut. But answering a couple of key questions can help you make that call:

  1. How much time and money do you want to spend? If your budget or timeline is tight, a mobile site should be your first port of call
  2.  How much flexibility do you need? If you want to be able to update your content or design at a moment’s notice, a mobile site is going to be your best bet
  3. Do your users need offline access? If so, you’ll need to develop an app that stores content locally
  4. Is personalization a need-to-have? The ability to personalize a user experience can often be a nice-to-have feature; but if personalization is a fundamental part of the user experience, you’ll need to build a strong native app
  5. Do you need access to device functionality? If access to a camera, location-services, or any other device features would significantly improve the mobile experience, you can put another point in the app column 

Of course, there are other questions you could ask depending on your business needs and objectives. Maybe, for example, you want to monetize your app, in which case you’d need to ask yourself whether you want to bring in cash through ads on a website or subscriptions to a mobile app. These questions don’t cover every scenario. But they’re a good place to start.

Key Findings in Whether to Build a Mobile Site or Native App

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the big question of mobile site vs. native app: the choice boils down to your specific needs. When you’re weighing your options, try to keep your budget, your business goals, your value proposition, and the needs of your users at the front of your mind.

It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t a black and white choice. You can always loop back and develop an app once you’ve built your mobile site and vice versa. But in this post, we’ve tried to arm you with the info you need to decide which option to prioritize. We’ve covered the core differences between mobile sites and native apps, unpacked their pros and cons, and given you some questions to kick off your search for the perfect mobile solution.

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