When to Build a Web Application vs. a Mobile Application

By June 24, 2014 No Comments

Web Ascender is approached by local and international businesses to help them improve business processes and implement solutions to generate revenue.  Our team has created a lot of mobile friendly web applications and actual native mobile applications over the years. When businesses approach us with a need, they don’t necessarily know how to approach or solve their problem.  They sometimes think they need an “app” but often times what they are looking to solve can be done with a web app. Their ultimate goal is typically to provide a solution that is easily accessible anytime, anywhere on a convenient to use device. They want something that a user can use while on the couch, in a business meeting, or at the bar. You can usually create this experience by creating an actual native mobile application downloaded from the “app store” or by creating a web experience that is optimized specifically for mobile devices.

Definition of a mobile app vs. a web app:

Mobile App – A native mobile application is an app that is running on your device that has been downloaded from an app store.  These applications exist and are running on your device and typically use limited web technology.  Some mobile applications do have web views or are a hybrid where some features are exposed as just embedded web pages.

Mobile Web App – A web application is running on a web server out in the cloud and is accessed through a web browser like Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer.  Data is typically saved in the cloud and the application is formatted to be easy to use on a phone or tablet.  These are usually accessible from a desktop, laptop and mobile devices.

What do you need to consider when deciding to build a mobile application or web application?

We have created this nifty grid to help review some of the pros and cons of building mobile web applications vs. mobile apps.  It ultimately comes down to the problems you are trying to solve, and often times it is not totally clear what is the best option. Here are some things to consider:

  Mobile Website (web app) Mobile Application
Initial Investment Mobile websites are typically less expensive to create than a native mobile application. Mobile application development may require you to develop apps specific to certain platforms: Android, iOS, Windows. This requires specialization in each platform and usually takes more time and money.
Maintenance Updating a mobile web application can be done in minutes. The updates are deployed and instantly all users of the web app have the changes. Updating mobile applications require you to test on each platform and deploy to each platforms respective app store. You then have to wait a few days for the application to be approved before users can download the new version.
User Interfaces Typically mobile web application interfaces will be pretty standard. It’s often more work to create highly customized user interfaces and interaction on mobile web than it is to do on a mobile device. Mobile Applications can have completely unique user experiences that have a high level of animation and creative interaction. It requires custom development but virtually anything is possible.



Gaming Basic gaming with limited animations and interaction can be done effectively with mobile web. Complex gestures and animations are best done with a mobile app. Majority of your highly interactive and visually impressive games are going to be native mobile applications.
Offline Use Mobile web applications can have offline capabilities. However, the technologies available to enable these features are limited. Web applications are typically designed to require an active internet connection for use. Mobile applications are often ideal for creating rich experiences that allow the user to still use the mobile application without an internet connection. The mobile application has a lot of options for how to store and use local data and can often be used effectively without an internet connection and will sync back with a main server once connectivity is re-gained.
Payments and Subscriptions Mobile web applications give you a lot of flexibility on how you collect payment for your product. You are able to charge one-time fees, monthly subscription fees, offer promo codes and more. One of the biggest benefits of web applications is that you do not have to give Apple or the specific marketplace 30% of your income on purchases. Mobile applications offer an extremely easy way to purchase the initial application and also do micro-payments and in-app purchases.The mobile application can charge and process payments using their existing credit card on file with the specific marketplace. This makes purchasing things very simple. You will have to give your respective marketplace a cut of all transactions. This fee is usually 30%.
Access to native features Accessing the camera, accelerometer, GPS, microphone and specific hardware features of the phone are limited when using a web application. The web browser has very limited access to those features and would not be a good fit if you are building a product that relies heavily on specific phone / tablet hardware capabilities. Unlike a web browser the native mobile application can access the GPS, camera and other hardware components at a much deeper level and respond to changes in those elements much faster. If you are building an application highly dependent on device hardware then you may be better off with an actual mobile app.
Approval Process When you build a mobile web application you do not have to have this approved by any 3rd party. Just build it and release it to the world. If you build a mobile application the application will be reviewed by Apple and be subject to all of their terms and conditions. This process takes 5 – 14 days and can result in your application being denied from the app store if you are in violation of any of their requirements.
Findability Often times users start at to search for a product or application to solve their needs.Having a web application can help searchers find your product. Some users may search the app store for a product to solve their need, which could give you access to a more specific set of individuals.You can also build marketing web pages to promote your application that can be found from a Google search.
Advertising You can build web applications and mobile apps with built in advertising. There are many options for including paid advertisements on your website. Google Adwords is the most common; you can also run your own. Building advertising into your mobile application can generate a lot of revenue if users use your app for long periods of time. Having eyeballs on ads for long periods of time can be quite profitable.
Communication When you build a web application you can collect the users email, phone number and whatever information you want. You can then communicate with that user through the app, email marketing or SMS messaging. With a mobile application you can also collect detailed information on the user to send email, SMS and you also have the ability to send Push notifications as needed. These are like text messages where they can interrupt the user and engage with them instantly.
Reach Mobile web applications are usually created with all modern web browsers in mind. This includes Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer. Web browsers are available on all modern phones, desktop computers, laptops and tablets. Mobile web applications will give you the widest audience reach and also support future devices. Mobile applications are specific to platforms like iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone 8.Mobile applications need to be tailored to specific market places and coded specifically for each framework or platform.
Sharing Web applications are easy to share out to social networks or send to a friend via email. You can also integrate the web systems with Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms. Mobile applications don’t have as many easy ways to share information. However, some games and applications will have you connect with Facebook and allow the system to post on your timeline.
Cool Factor It’s a little more “cool” to have a mobile app. People like that their users will have an icon on their homepage for the app and they like the fact people will download it. You don’t get that with web apps, the best you can do is suggest they bookmark the app on their homepage. Then you will get a neat icon directly on their phone. Many companies think that they “just need an app.” Like it’s something they have to do to be cool and ahead of their competition.Having an app in the app store is definitely a good feeling but it should never be the only reason for making an app.

As you can see, picking a specific direction is not necessarily straightforward.  It really depends what your priorities are for today and also what you plan to do in the future.  If there is not a feature that can only be accomplished by building a native mobile application we tend to recommend starting with a mobile web application. This will give you the most reach, on a reasonable budget and will also allow you to maintain or pivot your application more cost effectively.  Adding a native mobile application can be a great option after building a web application to create a tailored experience on that device. There are many products that provide both a web experience and mobile experience.  Those applications usually start with the web and then later grow into native mobile applications as needed in the future.

How did we decide whether to go web or mobile on some of our apps?


SmartIce was in need of a dashboard to see how thousands of vending machines were performing.  They needed details on sales and also the ability to send maintenance and diagnostics commands to each of the machines.  The initial thought was to build a web app and then build a mobile application down the road.  The web application was so good and tailored so well towards a mobile experience that the users did not feel it was necessary to have an actual app. It just was not necessary.

SmartIce Checklists

However, SmartIce needed a way for maintenance personnel to visit vending machines and run though checklists, take photos of the surrounding areas and submit these back to corporate.  Some vending machines are in remote locations with no cell towers and the application needed to work offline. The application also needed access to the camera for photos and video.  This application was implemented as a mobile application and a web application.  Users can download the mobile application and use it offline as needed or use the web to perform and submit their checklists.

Judgment Interest Calculator

When Web Ascender was approached by Mokasoft to create a tool for attorneys their initial instinct was to create a native mobile application.  After Web Ascender reviewed their requirements, budget and overall needs it became more apparent that a web application would be a far better fit. By making a web application we could tie in entire attorney’s offices allowing their office staff and attorneys to interact and have accounts.  It also allowed Mokasoft to put 30% more money in their pocket because they didn’t have to pay app store fees.

Meritor Sales Application

Meritor needed a way to have sales and marketing content available to their sales team 24/7 and available offline to ensure their presentations went uninterrupted due to poor wifi or cellular connectivity.  Web Ascender created their iOS application as a native app to ensure it could work flawlessly offline as needed. The system also has a web app companion that is used to manage the applications content and provide an endpoint for data synchronization.

The Planner Guide

You don’t always get it right. The Planner Guide was originally a paper product that they wanted to adapt to a software product that people could easily use around the world.  However, they wanted to retain the capability for their users to also print a physical copy of their guide from their computer.  Based on the needed features and budget we agreed to create a web application. We later created a mobile companion application that synchronized with the web and allowed them easy access to their guide offline.  Based on what we learned from actual application use after it went live was that most people wanted to use the app exclusively from their mobile device.  This product may have been best designed and developed specifically and only as a mobile application.

Have a web or mobile application idea? Get in touch with Web Ascender.

Interested in creating a product and start-up business? Check out our start-up guide.

Web Application Startup Guide

A 30-page ebook that covers positioning, marketing, pricing, and building your startup product, plus more.

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