Are Dedicated Apps Always Better Than Mobile Websites?

Think about all of the services you use on your phone. Email, social networking, photo sharing, news, todo lists, calendars and much more. Forget games, phone calls and text messages, and it’s likely that the vast majority of what you use your phone for involves being online. Yet the chances are that as soon as you start using a new tool you immediately seek out an app. But is this necessary?

In most cases, where there is a web-based tool that has an app, there is also a mobile website. So why do we all gravitate towards apps? It’s something I know that I am guilty of and that I don’t usually give a great deal of thought to. Apps are where it’s at for me. It’s been that way for some time, but I thought it was about time to re-evaluate the situation.

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There is no denying that apps are convenient. Whatever you may be looking for, you can fire up Google Play and you’ll find a neatly organized list of apps broken up into all manners of categories. Need a way to organize your hectic schedule? There are countless apps that can lend a virtual hand. The phrase “there’s an app for that” has become so ubiquitous that it almost qualifies as an adage, but it could be modified to “there’s an app for that… but do you need it?” — I would argue that you possibly don’t.

Sure, there are countless apps in Google Play -- but you don't have to use them.

Sure, there are countless apps in Google Play — but you don’t have to use them.

I’m not suggesting that you give up on apps completely; that’s not something I think I’m ready to do yet. But at the same time there is space for both to happily co-exist alongside each other. There are times when an app is entirely appropriate and is the best solution, but equally there are times when an app is created just for the sake of it, times when the mobile website is all you need. Let’s look at both sides of the argument.

The Case for Mobile Websites

There are, of course, exceptions, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of websites are accessible free of charge — the same cannot be said of apps. Yes, there are an awful lot of free apps out there, but there are also a tremendous number of premium apps or those that only really function correctly if you are willing to shell out on in-app purchases (and apps can very quickly add up!).

Of course, there is scope for mobile sites to be surrounded by a paywall but if this the case, the chances are that there’s also an associated app that has a charge associated with it. While Google Play is very much geared up with apps in mind — and despite what Apple might want you to believe — there is not an app for everything. This is certainly true of many newer online services.

The cost of apps can quickly add up to a small fortune!

The cost of apps can quickly add up to a small fortune!

Getting a startup off the ground can be very time-consuming and expensive, so it is understandable when companies focus on creating an online presence before thinking about apps. Don’t be put off using a particular online service just because there isn’t an Android app available — sadly it still tends to be iOS that that developers think of first. If there is a mobile website available, give it a try; it may do everything you need it to do and could tide you over until an app is released. You never know, you may even stick with the website even when there is an app available.

From the point of view of a developer, updating a website is a great deal quicker and easier than updating an app. This is great for end users who get to benefit from changes and additions faster than people using an app.

In the case of news, websites deliver everything you could want from an app.

In the case of news, websites deliver everything you could want from an app.

But there is a key advantage to websites that is all too easy to overlook. If you’re a serious Android user, you probably live on the bleeding edge of technology and upgrade your phone and tablet on a frequent basis (maybe a regular basis, but frequent seems more likely). If you fall into this category you’ll be used to having the latest and greatest hardware, and this usually means having more storage space available.

Websites are great for older, cheaper devices that do not have a huge amount of storage — rather than compromising and freeing up space by deleting photos, music or other files, you can just forego apps and stick with websites instead. You can bookmark all of the sites you use for easy access or even create homescreen shortcuts to make it feel more like working with apps.

Running out of space on your homescreens? Try bookmarking websites instead.

Running out of space on your homescreens? Try bookmarking websites instead.

Of course, there are also apps that have limited device support. It can be extremely frustrating to discover a great new service that you’re using on your computer, only to find that your phone cannot run the Android app that has been produced. Check out the mobile website and you might be pleasantly surprised. Obviously, this is not going to work for all apps — there are plenty of titles that do not lend themselves to online versions.

If your phone or tablet is not capable of running Need for Speed Most Wanted, you’re not going to be able to turn to an online version instead. Websites have their place, but they also have their limitations. Be realistic in your expectations. Mobile websites are great for services that are data based — email, shopping lists, news, file synchronization, calendars and the like.

Mobile websites do no suffer the same compatibility issues as apps.

Mobile websites do no suffer the same compatibility issues as apps.

This is not where the advantage end. Mobile websites have better levels of compatibility with a wider range of devices. The update process is significantly faster and easier for developers. There is a greater degree of control over websites than apps. While apps could be removed from a store due to breaking guidelines, the same cannot be said of a website.

Mobile websites are very valuable. So valuable it seems that many dedicated apps are little more than a wrapper for the website. This is something that news websites are particularly guilty of. Under the belief that readers simply expect an app to exist, one will be created that essentially presents a website in a slightly different interface.

The Case for Apps

On the flip side, websites do have limitations. Technologies such as Javascript and Flash can be problematic in terms of support, security issues and performance, and this can mean missing out on features. Alternatively, websites may have to be coded in such a way that tasks that are easy to perform in an app take multiple steps online. Being designed from scratch, and with far fewer limitations to overcome, apps would already seem to be first out of the starting blocks.

Some apps do offer benefits over websites -- such as with offline emails.

Some apps do offer benefits over websites — such as with offline emails.

Rather than putting funds and effort into developing workarounds for the mobile browser restrictions, it does makes sense to concentrate on creating an app from scratch. Having a dedicated app will usually allow for more features to be supported and it is possible to take better advantage of features that are built into Android.

There are companies who do not want to spend the time and money developing a regular website and a mobile version. When there is demand for apps from most mobile users, it makes sense to channel resources into what will please the majority of people. Mobile users have a tendency to gravitate towards apps, so it is understandable that this receives more funding.

Offline functionality aside, Gmail's apps and websites are comparable in terms of features and ease of use.

Offline functionality aside, Gmail’s apps and websites are comparable in terms of features and ease of use.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of apps is the fact that they can be used offline. Websites are limited by the fact that you can only access data linked to your account when you are able to get on the internet. As we’re talking, primarily, about online services, you may wonder why this would be an issue, but think about your email. The mobile Gmail site, for example, is very capable, but there is a problem — a lack of offline access.

“Ah!” You may say. “But if I don’t have an internet connection, what’s the point in Gmail working or not?” Well, sure, you may not be able to check for new messages without an internet connection, but what about those messages that you have already downloaded? If you’re relying on the website, when you find yourself in a signal blackspot, you’re not going to be able to access anything — in an app you will at least be able to access the contents of your inbox to the point at which it was last synced. This is obviously handy if you need to check a phone number that has been emailed to you as you don’t need to hunt down a working signal first.

There is also one key thing missing from websites — notifications. An app’s integration into Android is the only way in which you can be told about the arrival of new messages without the need for you to constantly check manually.

In Conclusion

Am I ready to give up my apps? I think I would find it hard to go completely cold turkey. The use of apps has become second nature on my phones and tablets. Oddly, things are different for me on my desktops and laptops — I am quite happy to use online services and web apps in place of installable software, but this attitude has not quite made its way to my Android device as yet.

Give it a go! Free up some space by ditching a few of your apps!

Give it a go! Free up some space by ditching a few of your apps!

In the course of the past few hundred words I’ve given myself cause to reconsider my reliance on apps. Perhaps it is time for me to sever ties and ditch the apps in favour of websites for a while. Who’s with me? Do you think you could forego apps and spend more time working in your browser?

There are almost certainly going to be a few apps that prove themselves to be completely indispensable. Which ones do you think you simply could not live without? If you are reluctant to let go of apps, what improvements would need to be made to web-based services in order to convince you to make the switch to their mobile websites?