What’s the difference between a mobile website and an app?

This is part of a series on how wine retailers can use mobiles to sell more wine. This post looks at the differences between an “app” and a “mobile website”.

The  key differences are that mobile sites don’t need to be downloaded, are available to all, easier to build, and do not need approval. Apps take advantage of the native handset applications like the camera, gyroscope and push notifications.

Downloaded

At Apple Store
The most obvious difference is that an app is usually downloaded from iTunes or the Android Market, whereas a mobile website can run on your mobile’s browser (Safari in the case of Apple). There are pros and cons to downloading. Having to download an app is probably too much of a hurdle to ask a first time customer who plans to make one purchase. Whereas a regular customer could well find an app very convenient versus typing in your website address on a tiny keyboard.

A definite upside of mobile websites is that they update automatically and so not require the customer to download the latest update if you come out with a new version – unlike apps.

Available to all

A mobile website is usually just a distilled version of your normal website. It can run on any phone with a browser. This means people who don’t like downloading apps (or don’t understand how) can access your website. Likewise any smartphone customer can access your website – not just iPhone or Android phone customers. If you just have an app then only those who are able to download the app have access.

Easier

A mobile website is relatively easy to create. This is mainly due to “device detection software”. This software can detect the mobile phone handset type and deliver a mobile browsing experience suited to the screen size and resolution. There is no need to create separate apps for Apples, Androids, and Blackberrys etc.

No authority needed

You have to meet Apple or Google’s app store requirements before they’ll allow you to offer an app through iTunes or the Android Market. There are ways to do this from your website but you may face legal issues and your customers may face warranty issues.

Native handset functionality

Apps, on the other hand can make better use of the handset’s native applications such as the camera, gyroscope, offline usage and push notifications. It’s also more convenient for regular users to just touch an icon rather than typie in a URL.

iPhone apps can also boost distribution due to the immense popularity of iTunes especially if you get on the app top 10 charts.

Here’s a great comparison chart from Mashable. Note there is one view that apps and mobile website functionality will converge so perhaps this comparison will become dated.

iPhone infographic comparison

Let’s look at why CostCo developed a mobile website

Here’s how CostCo explained their mobile website program.

Costco.com has seen a greater than 100 % increase in mobile-device traffic to the website. Obviously there is an interest in shopping or browsing the site with those devices.

We’ve seen most mobile traffic coming from iPhones but also from iPads, Androids and BlackBerrys.

Mobile access is a channel for which there is significant demand and going forward the growth in mobile access will be huge.

We need to develop something simpler, faster to load and easier to navigate. So we’ve created a more distilled version of the website with smaller graphics that load faster and navigation that you can move through easier with a finger.

Costco.com will recognize the device you’re using to contact the site. It will be an automatic shift to the mobile platform when it senses you’re using a phone. Beyond that the experience will only be different in terms of the navigation being simpler.

Ordering from your mobile devices is just as secure as ordering from your computer … the same levels of encryption are used,

The warehouse (store) locator will be totally interactive with your web-enabled phone. You can enter a zip code or depending on your phone your location could be used to generate a custom map showing the warehouses near you.

Source: The CostCo Connection p.88-89, Nov 2010 (paraphrased in parts).

The key points for me are that they have lots of traffic from mobiles, they’ve created a simpler version of their normal website, they chose a site not an app and are ensuring that customers can find where their physical stores are located when using their mobiles.

Here’s what I believe are the key factors.

Key functional factors

There seems to be agreement that mobile websites and/or apps need to have:

  • Easy “finger touch” navigation
  • Keep it Simple – reduce all screen clutter and offer a distilled version of your website.
  • Keep it Fast – due to mobile phone network speed
  • Easy to use forms – “finger touch” again
  • Device detection software so you don’t need to worry about handsets (mobile websites only)
  • Retailers should have a Geolocation or zip code store locator for local customers to take advantage of

I’m ignoring mobile e-commerce issues for the purposes of this post.

How to create a Mobile Website?

It depends on your website software. I’m using WordPress, so the two mobile software plugins that leap out to me are:

  • WordPress Mobile Pack
  • WPTouch (which I use)

They have reasonably simple installation and customization and work nicely with the performance software I use (WP Total Cache).

Magento ecommerce software has a built in device detection system with a design you can select just for mobiles (it also has an app). I’ll do some research into other wine m-commerce software for a later post.

Once you’ve optimized the experience, you can use your mobile website to graduate regular users to a more robust native app.

How to create an App?

This is harder. In theory you need to be an Objective-C programmer however I’m trialling various software packages that makes the process easier.

You will probably just want to create a simple brief and hire a contractor. I suggest you read these articles to see if you’re game :)HOW TO: Build an App for Your Small Business, or if you’re a tech geek like me: 6 Steps to Building a Better iPhone App.

In my next post I’ll look more specifically at wine apps and mobile sites.

Any thoughts or comments?

Photos courtesy of: Mashable, At Apple Store

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WineMarketingPros
  • Anonymous

    There is one major difference between native apps and mobile web apps/sites: Usage

    HelloVino.com launched as a mobile web app/site in January 2009, with compatibility across all mobile devices/platforms (webkit, mobile HTML/CSS, WAP, and even SMS). In June, 2009, we launched a native iPhone app with the same exact functionality, our usage increased 12x.

    • Anonymous

      @HelloVino very very interesting. Do you put that down to people finding it through iTunes (“distribution”) and/or it was just easier to use compared to a mobile experience?

      • Anonymous

        @BruceMcGechan The answer is: Both.

        The iTunes App Store is the #1 distribution channel for iPhone apps (actually, for any any mobile apps). As a developer, whenever our app is featured on any curated list within iTunes, we instantly experience a 200% increase in daily downloads. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if iTunes (or Apple) becomes the “Paypal for Moble” due to their streamlining the mobile payments process.

        For the mobile experience, users prefer apps over the mobile web. During our extensive field testing throughout 2008-2009, most users asked “do you have app?” and they found entering a URL into a mobile browser to be cumbersome. Not to mention, most sessions on the mobile Web were conducted through the awful BlackBerry web browsers, souring any expectation of a pleasant/efficient user experience.

        Mobile = Utility. A smartphone is not designed to be browsing device.

        It seems that every year is “the year of mobile” – but, unfortunately, this will not be the case until the fragmentation issue is addressed. Luckily, there are a couple of leaders (Apple & Google) that currently make up ~50% of smartphone market share. For now, we’ll follow their collective lead.

        What about you? Do you spend more time in your web browser vs. the individual apps on your smartphone?

        Great post to spark such a discussion.

        Rick Breslin
        Hello Vino

        P.S. There are a couple web-based CMS tools that export native apps to multiple platforms in which you may be interested. Mobile Roadie is one of the leaders in this space.

      • Anonymous

        @BruceMcGechan The answer is: Both.

        The iTunes App Store is the #1 distribution channel for iPhone apps (actually, for any any mobile apps). As a developer, whenever our app is featured on any curated list within iTunes, we instantly experience a 200% increase in daily downloads. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if iTunes (or Apple) becomes the “Paypal for Moble” due to their streamlining the mobile payments process.

        For the mobile experience, users prefer apps over the mobile web. During our extensive field testing throughout 2008-2009, most users asked “do you have app?” and they found entering a URL into a mobile browser to be cumbersome. Not to mention, most sessions on the mobile Web were conducted through the awful BlackBerry web browsers, souring any expectation of a pleasant/efficient user experience.

        Mobile = Utility. A smartphone is not designed to be browsing device.

        It seems that every year is “the year of mobile” – but, unfortunately, this will not be the case until the fragmentation issue is addressed. Luckily, there are a couple of leaders (Apple & Google) that currently make up ~50% of smartphone market share. For now, we’ll follow their collective lead.

        What about you? Do you spend more time in your web browser vs. the individual apps on your smartphone?

        Great post to spark such a discussion.

        Rick Breslin
        Hello Vino

        P.S. There are a couple web-based CMS tools that export native apps to multiple platforms in which you may be interested. Mobile Roadie is one of the leaders in this space.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks for your insights Rick. I certainly find that if I’m using a mobile website a lot I download the app. Though I seem to download more apps for my 4 year old than myself nowadays.

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