Mobile App vs. Mobile Web: Why it Matters

Posted by Dana Craig April 02, 2012

I recently read an article that indicated that it doesn't matter to consumers whether mobile apps prevail over the mobile web. It was right there in the title. To the title's credit, it certainly caught my attention. But in a sound-bite-driven, 140-characters-or-less world, too many people won't take the time to read the rest of the article or add some balance to the discussion.

While it's true that average consumers may not be able to articulate or identify the differences between a mobile app and the mobile web, they are masters at identifying good experiences with technology. And, if for no other reason than that, mobile app vs. mobile web does indeed matter.

The world of mobile content, consumer experience, and how our use of devices will continue to evolve is a mammoth playing field that doesn't dictate a single path. After all, this isn't a VHS vs. Beta discussion, where only one format could reasonably survive and flourish (until both were made obsolete in the digital world, of course).

From that persepctive, the debate of mobile app vs. mobile web lacks substance. We don't need to rally around one concept, while voting the other one off the island. We need to embrace both and continue to listen to, observe, and respond to how consumers' expectations change over time. This practice tends to lead to selecting the best tool for the job. 

When Mobile Apps Win

Mobile apps have the clear advantage currently when creating feature-rich, design-focused experiences. User-specific information can be stored on the device, allowing access to some or all features without gobbling up data plans or requiring a WiFi connection. Apps tend to win when design and entertainment factors are paramount.

A lot of apps are now more hybrid in approach, where static data is stored locally, while information that can be changed or updated (ex. schedules, sports results, etc.) requires at least a momentary connection to draw down new content.

When Mobile Web Wins

The mobile web has the advantage when users are data-driven, looking for timely, accurate information with little concern to how it's packaged. 

This usually applies to ad-hoc queries such as flight arrival information, movie times, traffic conditions and the like.

I've seen some well-designed, attractive mobile web offerings; but, by their nature, the visual components are watered down to provide consistent experiences across a range of devices. That's completely acceptable if the goal is not to visually wow the audience.

Moving Forward

If we're smart, we won't prematurely kill off one in favor of the other. Match task to tools for the forseeable future and just let the debate play out. Consumers benefit from both whether they know it or not. As technologists, if we're doing our job right, the consumer shouldn't have to care, even thougt it absolutely matters.

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