Smartphones have had an immense impact on the way we both interact with websites and how they’re built. In the early days of Android and iOS -- or even further back to flip phones that could access the internet -- websites weren’t designed to fit well onto a small screen. Mobile browsers did what they could to make them work, but it really wasn’t all that long ago that you had to double-tap on some text just so you could zoom in and read something.
There was an app-craze when the smartphone boom happened. Everyone needed to get an app. But is that still the case? Responsive web design is an alternative that many see as more appealing than investing in a site and an app, but can a responsive website fully replace a mobile app?
Responsive Web Design vs Mobile Apps
The vast majority of internet browsing is done on mobile devices now instead of on desktops or laptops, so it makes sense wanting to put time and effort into a finished project that will display well on a smartphone. But what exactly is the difference between a responsive website and an app? If you design a site responsively, users will be able to access it from any device with an internet browser and it should be able to adjust itself to fit whatever resolution and screen size they’re using.
A mobile app, on the other hand, has been specially designed to work on certain operating systems (Android and iOS being the big two) and at specific resolutions. Apps can also make use of things like QR codes, augmented reality, voice recognition, and more. Internet browsers are helping to bridge the gap here, though, and you’ve likely noticed features like Click to Call, User Location, and access to your phone’s accelerometer and gyroscope becoming more common when using your phone’s internet browser.
Do I need a mobile app if I have a responsive website?
If you dive into data regarding how we all use our phones, you may see some compelling points for going with a mobile app. For instance, 90 percent of mobile activity is spent using apps. But let’s dive a little further into the data. Out of that 90 percent app usage, Facebook (specifically) commands a huge piece of the pie, as do things like messaging/social apps, games, and entertainment -- leaving very little room for anything else.
A responsive website, on the other hand, is easier to access and share between users (no downloads needed!) and will help build a mobile presence that can be found via search engines. Responsive design will also be more friendly on your wallet and will take less time to build from the ground up than an app would. Going with a responsive website over an app also provides accessibility to more users. Apps can be a barrier for some older users who may be reluctant to download apps but are very familiar with accessing websites via their mobile devices.
Responsive web app as a replacement
Modern responsive websites are more than traditional html and css, they utilize robust frameworks that are closer to an app than a static website. Sites like this are known as web apps. It may have the same appearance of a mobile app, as well as most of its capabilities, but a web app doesn’t require a user to download it -- it just loads in-browser in place of the regular website. Historically, a weakness of a web app would be that it can’t access things like your camera or GPS, but hybrid web apps are now able to gain access to your phone's API, similarly to a regular mobile app.
Having a responsive web app also eliminates the need to submit your app to the proprietary Apple app store for Apple devices and Google Play for Android devices. On top of that, there is no need to post updates for each device type or worry about compatibility beyond standard cross-browser testing.
How to choose between a responsive web app and a mobile app?
In the end, you need to look at what will best serve your needs best. A mobile app makes sense for a platform like Facebook since they need to efficiently deliver tons of content and media, rely heavily on a positive user experience, and don’t need to worry about discoverability.
If having access to device APIs for your users is something that will greatly increase their overall experience but you don’t want to invest the extra time and money that a mobile app necessitates, then a hybrid web app may be the way to go.
You may also find that a standard responsive website offers everything that you need, and can forgo the added overhead and time that building a web app that accesses device features requires. Building a mobile site first also gives you the option to someday extend it to utilize device features.
If you’re not sure what the best solution is for you, feel free to reach out and we can help you kick around options.