Apps, RWD, or mobi. sites?

There is a lot of talk about the best way to reach mobile consumers at the moment: some people champion responsive web design, others bet on mobile optimised websites being the ultimate winners, while still others say apps are the only way forward.

It is an important question with 15% of on-line commerce now funnelled through mobile devices (and more in certain markets like China).

But what is right for one business may not be right for another. There are a lot of (often competing) issues to consider and this post is my attempt at simplifying them.

First a few definitions:

  • Responsive web design (RWD) involves the website sniffing out what sort of device is visiting it and adapting the layout accordingly. There is one web address and one set of content but it is delivered differently depending on what is thought best for the device of the visitor.
  • In contrast a mobile optimised website (MOS) will deliver an experience that has been optimised for the mobile user. Layout will be very different from the standard site (as is the case with RWD); content may differ, or at least be prioritised and ordered differently; and there may well be different functionality to make the site simpler or to add things that mobile consumers may want. The web address will be different too – perhaps starting with “m.”.
  • Mobile apps are still more different. Apps don’t live on the internet and don’t (or shouldn’t) need the internet to run. Instead they reside on a mobile phone – which means that at some point they must have been downloaded to it.

So what are the advantages of each? Rather than go through each approach individually I thought I’d highlight the main benefits and weaknesses and show how each approach scores.


Cost is always an important consideration, and generally speaking it is cheaper to develop a mobile website than to develop an app where at least two versions (for Apple and Android) will be needed.

User behaviour

Mobile apps win out when it comes to current user behaviour. MDG Advertising have created a very nice infographic showing how users are more engaged on apps than on mobile websites. However, for certain types of tasks including shopping, people seem to prefer mobile websites – so the issue is not clear cut.

Using the phone’s functionality

Apps score highly when it comes to using phone functionality like the camera. It is harder for a MOS to do this. And a site using RWD is very unlikely to have that sort of functionality built in because it would be irrelevant for non-mobile users.

So if you want to encourage people to submit a video then an app may be your best bet. If you want to provide people with content sensitive to the location a mobile optimised website (or an app) will do the trick. But otherwise using RWD may be the most cost-effective solution.

Updating content

Apps aren’t part of the internet so they need to be updated actively. In contrast mobile websites will display the most up-to-date version whenever they are visited. That’s not necessarily a big deal as apps can be set to update themselves on a regular basis – as news apps like the BBC’s do. However for content that is constantly in need of updating (such as stock levels in a shop) then an app can represent an over-complex solution.

Simple content creation

Responsive websites simply take one set of content and display it in the most appropriate way. Mobile optimised sites and Apps, by their very nature, are (or should be) displaying content that has been specially rewritten for them. Two sets of content can mean twice the work creating it. And two sets of content can deliver an inconsistent brand experience across different devices unless care is taken.


Mobile websites are potentially very findable. If your website shows up well in search engines the mobile version will be easy to find. The opportunities to use search marketing to promote products in the Apple App Store and Google’s Play store simply aren’t as sophisticated. So it is very easy for your app to remain hidden among the hundreds of thousands of other apps: apps can be hard to find – and harder to stumble across. Unless they feature at the top of an app store like Google’s Play then they may never be found, even if you are a big brand.

And of course when you have found an app you then need to download it – which is another barrier to using it.

M-commerce payments

Apple and Google are very happy to take a large chunk of any revenue you might make from selling your app through their app stores. But you won’t lose any revenue if you are selling through a website. However, set against that is the fact that Apple apps on average have a 30% higher conversion rate than mobile websites, so perhaps the Apple app store is earning its money!


While it is arguably good for consumers that Apple has stringent requirements that must be met before it will allow an app to be available via its app store, this can cause headaches for businesses eager to get their mobile app out there. Mobile websites have no such problems.

Faster operations

Mobile optimised websites can (and should) be built with smaller file sizes to take account of the need for people to have a slick experience when using devices with lower computing power or in places where data rates are low due to “crowded” bandwidth (e.g. in central London). Speed of download is really important for e-commerce where every second of delay means lost revenues.

On-line retail sites using RWD may be painfully slow in areas of low bandwidth and are likely to be far less effective than mobile optimised sites.

In contrast apps don’t need any connection to the web to be used – at least until a transaction is required. And as they can be extremely fast at rendering content they can be an excellent option of e-commerce.


Popular apps will sit visibly on people’s phones without the user having to find them online. For instance Amazon and eBay apps are readily visible on my phone but if I want to go to their websites I need to go online and then look in my favourites folder.


Some people argue that apps have better security. And in some ways they do – but as UK consumers are generally happy with the security of websites that’s hardly a factor, except perhaps for highly critical functions such as banking.


So which should a business choose: mobile optimised website, responsive web design, or mobile app? The right decision will depend on your budget, the nature of your content and what you are trying to achieve.

Apps are great for delivering complex experiences to users who are regularly in wi-fi areas and who have devices with sufficient processing power. At the moment this may be the best solution for many larger media owners. Mobile optimised apps are probably the best way forward for on-line retailers, delivering slick experiences, the potential for geo-targetting of information and promotions, and providing and easy way into transactions. And using responsive web design is a simple and relatively cheap solution that makes content management easy and can deliver consistently across several devices where there is no need for an optimised experience.