There are two major branches of mobile usage: "apps" (applications) and "the mobile web." The mobile web is just a way of referring to all the websites that have mobile-enabled pages. The term also loosely includes most of the Internet because you can still see almost any website with a mobile device ... you just can't necessarily use it very well.
Unlike mobile web sites, apps are not hosted on servers. Apps are self-contained little programs that are typically optimized for use on smartphones and tablets. Some apps have similar functionality to their sister websites and behave like little portable microsites, while other apps behave more like true software programs on your computer.
Apps Versus Mobile Sites for Engagement
Apps have an edge if you want a deeper engagement experience with your users, and if you want to make the most of the functionality of the device they're on (for example, the way the carpenter's level apps make use of a mobile device's sensitivity to what angle it's held at).
Apps Beat Mobile Sites on Speed, But Lose on Reach
Apps are also better for response times. If you're building a game, an app gives the player faster response than would a website. But the advantages come at a cost: Apps tend to be more expensive to develop than mobile sites. You will also have to get Apple's blessing to have your app available on iTunes, and the same goes for other smartphone platforms like Droid.
Mobile sites beat apps in terms of access because vastly more people search the web than search iTunes or any of the other app platforms. That means your mobile site is more likely to get used because an app is harder to find. Apps also have to be downloaded and installed.
Data Management Limitations
For managing lots of data, apps have an edge in that they typically connect to a database where mobile websites use simpler solutions. For example, a restaurant reservation system is simple enough to use a mobile website with email or text messages for confirmations. But a hotel reservation system that has to track room availability, rates, and other data (smoking/non-smoking, bed size, etc.) would do better with a mobile app that could draw information from a database.
Mobile Apps for Simplicity, Apps for More Robust Features
Ultimately, apps beat mobile sites in terms of speed, data management and advanced features. But all that functionality comes with a price tag. Most small businesses will do fine with a mobile version of their site, while larger companies, like a chain of retail stores or a conference, should look into developing an app.
What do you use for your business? Is your website mobile friendly or are using an app? Share with us!
April Heavens-Woodcock Chief Buzz Officer at Touching Clients, LLC Constant Contact Business Partner and Authorized Local Expert firstname.lastname@example.org 800-631-2217