Mobile Web vs. Native Application

By • November 5, 2012

Marcus Underwood
Marcus Underwood, Chief Innovation Officer, Naylor Association Solutions

One of the more divisive technical debates right now is centered on how best to deliver content and information to mobile users. Apple has made a name for itself with its huge store of cool, useful and fun iPhone applications. Android, with its open-source architecture, is catching up fast, and Blackberry has a robust store as well. However, developing and maintaining separate applications for each of these platforms can be very time-consuming and expensive. Enter the Mobile Web.

  • True Mobile Web is a website designed to be viewed on a mobile device rather than a PC screen. It doesn’t require you to download anything to access content and offers optimized menus, graphics and content.
  • Native apps don’t require you to have Internet connectivity to run. They tend to be faster than mobile web, take full advantages of location-based services and other features of mobile device’s capabilities.
  • Each option has important pros and cons and you will need to decide carefully how best to allocate your resources.

The Mobile Web is, essentially, a website customized for viewing on a mobile device. However, don’t think of it as just pulling up a website on your phone. Mobile web in its truest form is a separate website with optimized menus, graphics and content. When you are on your phone and type in a URL for a website that also has a Mobile Web version, you are seamlessly redirected to the mobile version of the site.

A great example of this technology can be seen at, the website for outdoor adventure outfitter REI. Visit this site on your Web browser, and then pull it up in your smartphone. Totally different site, but fully functional in each instance.

So why does this matter? Most of you will soon be dealing with the issue of how best to provide information to members in a mobile format, if you aren’t doing so already. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each of these options, and you will need to decide where to spend your resources. Here is a quick overview of things you should be considering:

Mobile Web

  • Reach Larger Audiences. Users don’t need to download anything to access your content.
  • Lower Cost and Time to Market. You can develop once, and it can be viewed on any platform.
  • Immediate Updates. Make a change to the layout, design or functionality and it shows up instantly.
  • No Gatekeeper or Censor. You don’t need to get approval from a store (like Apple).

Native Apps

  • Connectivity. Many applications will run even when you have no Internet connection, like on a plane. Mobile Web requires internet connectivity.
  • Immersive and Richer Experiences. Takes full advantage of device capabilities and dimensions. Integrated with core operating system tightly. Notifications show up on your phone.
  • Performance. Because it doesn’t require the Internet for all actions, it is usually faster for many functions.
  • Discoverability and Marketing. Native apps can take advantage of location-based services as they integrate with your phone’s GPS functions.
  • App Sales. If you want to make money selling your application, then you pretty much need to go the native application route.

In the end, both options have their place. Apps will continue to evolve and push the envelope of the smartphones. Likewise, with the newest Web standards (HTML5), Mobile Web will have more “native app” qualities as well. Consider the kinds of information you are trying to deliver to members and who the audience is. Are they power users who are frequently out of range of a cell signal? Do you want to sell your app to make money? Native apps may be the way to go.

However, Mobile Web is often a good place to start, as it is universal, cheaper, faster and will allow you to learn the needs and preferences of your members. Whichever path you choose, be prepared to evaluate your member’s usage and feedback constantly. Today’s answer is likely a different one than you will have in the future.

Marcus Underwood is vice president and general manager of NaylorNet, the online media solutions division of Naylor, LLC.