The web is a complex place and with iPads, iPhones, Blackberries, NexusOnes–and a whole slew of new mobile phones that allow applications and web browsing–the question comes into play: Should we develop a mobile app or a mobile site?

If I were to tackle that question, I would strongly encourage starting with a mobile site to get your feet wet. Especially if you have a small budget and aren’t too sure what you are doing. I also firmly believe that content is NOT an app. This is such a core belief of mine that when I heard Jeff Jarvis say those exact words it in a podcast back in April, it made me shout and scream in agreement while driving down I-94, “Yes! Someone agrees with me! Content is NOT AN APP PEOPLE!”

Jeff Jarvis stated, “Content is not an app” (39:24) on This Week in Google (TWiG) for April 10, 2010. Listen to the whole discussion between 32:00 and 48:00 to put the quote into context.

Why a Mobile Site?

Web browsers are on all smart phones. Applications, however, are phone (platform) specific. In other words, what you develop for the iPhone won’t work on the Blackberry and, believe it or not, Apple does not have the majority of the mobile market share. According to theĀ February 2010 comScore Mobile Subscriber report (it was the latest I found that showed platform (e.g. Apple vs RIM)), if you only developed an iPhone app, you would be missing out on 75% of your customers.

No matter what smart phone an individual is using, they can have access to your web content without downloading and installing an app. The purpose of a mobile site is to have a site that fits well on a smaller screen (less than 2 inches across) as well as download quickly without a lot of fluff and scripting that you can get by with on a larger desktop computer.

Why not an App?

App development takes time and money. Like all things technical, once you create an app you need to support it for updates, enhancements, and new phones. They will break and when they do you are forced to figure out whether you want to spend time and money on improving the app (which accounts for 1% of your traffic) or your web site (which takes care of the other 99%). Unless you have one or more people who can devote their time to the app in an ongoing manner, I would advise against it.

I strongly suggest you reserve app development for those cases where there is a productivity value. This would include complex calendaring or calculation systems, gaming, or reporting. Something that you can’t do with plain old HTML and JavaScript. An app is an application, not a web site. If you are only delivering content (e.g. articles and feeds) that is not a reason to have an application. An application is for getting things done. The phone already has an app for delivering content. A web browser.

A mobile web site will always be around even if the user later decides her phone has suffered application bloat and starts deleting unused apps. Your app better be good and useful otherwise it will end up in the trash. Why try to win that battle when instead you can focus on your web site that delivers your content regardless of app install base?

Marketing a Mobile Site

Marketing is simple, right next to your icons for Facebook and Twitter, place a link to m.yoursite.com or mobile.yoursite.com. This signifies that you have a mobile enabled web site and will draw people there when they are standing in line at the grocery store. (FYI, you should have dropped http:// off of ALL of your marketing by now, and if you can’t yet drop the www. prefix, please talk to your web people about that. It is so turn of the century.)

Additional Resources

I recorded a short 4 minute presentation using Jing explaining what a mobile site is. Also, just before publishing this (but after I had already written this post) a co-worker sent me an article from Mashable about mobile sites: Why You May Not Need a Mobile App. It goes along the same lines outlined here, but into greater detail. Plus it is always nice to have additional sources to refer to!

About Chad Leigh Kluck

I enjoy technology development and management by following new trends, change and disruption, and security. I have a Master of Science in Software Engineering and my hobbies include railroads, history, do-it-yourself projects, writing, and ham radio (K0RRX). More...

2 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Quick gut feel after skimming your post, Chad, is that it reminds me of the “podcast” concept when it was first popular. People would say, “I have this one lecture… so I want to make a podcast!” Podcasts are regular (or, at least, “a series of”) content that you want people to download and listen to on-demand; putting a link on a web page to an audio file is a fine thing, but it’s not a “podcast” — nor should it be, in many cases.

    In the same way, a lot of stuff shouldn’t be an “app” — it should just be web-enabled content, which is a perfectly fine and honorable thing to do.

    I haven’t listened to Jeff’s audio so maybe I’m off track… but I bet the parallel I’m thinking of makes sense?

  2. Posted June 12, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Eric, you are quite on track and there are many angles. Jeff Jarvis really gets at the “closed-ness” of the app world, which I didn’t want to dive into too much as I’m just scratching the surface and trying to quell the belief that “so-and-so has an app, therefore we need to make one too.” What I took away from the conversation on the TWiG podcast was that if you deliver content solely by an app, you are limiting your discover-ability by search engines. (Jeff uses the concept of submitting restaurant reviews.) Content on the Web is open to be indexed by a search engine. Content held hostage by an app is not indexable. Possibly useful if you wish to have a subscription service, but still, you can still have a mobile web login page which does the same thing. Imagine if the reviews or user submitted content you see on Google were only available to those with iPhone apps?

    Now, if your app made user contributed content easier to SUBMIT via the mobile device (if for some reason you couldn’t acheive the same using a mobile HTML web page–multiple image upload on a device that doesn’t support Flash) then yes, you may want an app for productivity’s sake.

    And yes, your podcast example is quite right. The popularity of apps is quite new (though they have been around since before the iPhone) and with new things (like buzz words) everyone wants to jump on and call themselves an app. We have a podcast. No, you don’t, you just have 3 audio files on your web site with no intent of scheduling more. We have an app for that. No, you don’t you just created another browser for the iPhone that shows content that you could just as easily make readily available your web site.

    Just putting content in an app does not make it an app.

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