Last updated: February 7, 2020
Should I Build an App or a Website?
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The difference between an app and a website can be fuzzy, and the semantics can be confusing. At times, it feels like the choice between taking the freeway or a toll road. There other times where there are some clear advantages to using one or the other.
Are you unsure whether you should build an app or a website?
This post will give you some background information, and the knowledge you need to know to make an informed decision. We also have some links to help you get started.
The Rise of the Website
How did we get here? The story of the internet, and the worldwide web today is complex, but there are some well-documented narratives that shaped How It All Started.
The modern web as we know it began to solidify in 1989. At the center was Tim Berners Lee, a software engineer working at CERN and the hypertext link. The hypertext link had been around since 1965, but it's potential wasn't fully realized until Tim Berners Lee published a paper called Information Management: A Proposal.
The impact of this paper laid the groundwork for the world-wide web as we know it.
Fast forward two decades later and the web is a much different place. After the Browser Wars settled, and the dust cleared - Internet Explorer, Edge, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera were left standing as the most popular web browsers. A new set of standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium made cross-compatibility a reality.
The Rise of the Mobile App
The mobile app rose in popularity with the evolution of mobile smartphones, and tablets. Just like the internet, mobile applications were an idea that simmered for some time before it came to fruition. In 1971 George Samuel Hurst developed an early version of the touchscreen. Today we use that technology to constantly fondle our mobile devices.
How did we get to this point? Some of the earliest mainstream mobile apps were simple games like brick and solitaire - both of which were in the first iPod (2001). One of the seminal moments in the rise of the app was marked by a Steve Jobs Keynote speech in 2007 - which included a demo of the very first iPhone.
This sparked cooperation from developers world-wide. The very first app store, the Apple Store, was launched in 2008, with only 500 apps to start with. A few months later, the Android Market (now Google Play) came out. By 2013 apps like Candy Crush and Instagram had over 50 billion downloads. Today apps like Venmo, Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat are pillars of our culture. The future of mobile apps seems to hold no bounds.
Nowadays, smartphones act as an extra appendage, complete with phantom limb-like sensations (also known as ringxiety) in their absence. There is an app for everything, including apps to:
- Monitor your heart rate.
- Book a flight.
- Book a hotel.
- Lose weight.
- Manage your schedule.
- Turn on your lights.
- Have a drone deliver pizza to your doorstep.
- Analyze your urine through your smart toilet.
Apps vs Websites
So okay, which is best for you? An app or a website? There are a few things you need to take into consideration…like your budget, target audience, and the purpose of your venture. Below we cover the similarities and differences between the two.
There are plenty of similarities between apps and websites. Mobile apps and websites are both built with design paradigms used by computer programmers - such as Object Oriented Programming, Agile, and Lean. There are a variety of languages and tools you can use to build either. Both websites and mobile apps:
- Can take anywhere from weeks to months to build.
- Involve graphic design.
- Take user experience into account.
- Have many of the same features (user forms, google maps integration, one-click calling).
Despite their similarities, there are some glaring differences when it comes to use cases. There are times where it's more appropriate to build a website rather than an app and vise versa.
Strengths of a Website
There are many situations when a website is a better choice. This is especially true if your goals involve marketing or public relations. A responsive mobile website is generally more accessible, more affordable, and less complicated to develop than a mobile app.
- Fast Prototyping: tools like Joomla, WordPress, or Pelican can help you quickly put up a website. Once you have your site up, there is no delay, it can be viewed by anyone connected to the internet.
- Compatibility: the robust set of responsive design standards for markup languages like HTML, CSS, and PHP makes viewing your site easy on any device.
- Accessibility: a responsive website can be found from any web browser or search engine. This is a good choice for any sized business that needs a home base on the internet.
- Reach: you will have a broader reach due to more accessibility. This is essential for certain types of marketing strategies.
- Native Web Apps: if you have enough resources (memory on your host), you can build a robust application directly on your site.
- Maintenance: websites are much easier to maintain, even for those of us with absolutely no coding skills thanks to a myriad of design tools.
- Updates: instantly update your website without having to wait for approvals.
- Less Complex: you can build applications using web technology. Mobile apps require intimate knowledge of the OS you are writing the application for (eg, Android, iOS, Windows).
Strengths of an App
There are specific problems related to UI and UX that an app does better. Mobile apps are more suited for programs that use more memory, and are focused on heavy user interaction. Mobile apps can also help solidify your brand over multiple channels. If you require any of the following, an app may be the way to go.
- Native Functionality: many of the apps we love use the native hardware functions on our phone. This includes things like the tilt sensor, camera, and flashlight.
- Gaming: for now, apps are much better for games that require lots of memory - even if you have tons of memory and your site loads quickly. For the time being, games like Pokémon Go fare better as a mobile app.
- Services: apps are much better suited for services such as Uber or Lift. Gmail is another example of an app that offers a better user experience than it's web counterpart.
- Personalized Use: some apps require lots of user input, or pull data from the user's device in order to function. Like Samsung's S Health App, that uses data from your phone to track your steps, heart-rate, and calorie count.
- Offline Use: if you want to build a program that can be used extensively offline, an app is the way to go. Think how frustrating it would be to have to log on to the internet every time you wanted to use your calculator.
For more help, we refer you to this flowchart:
Native web applications still can't match the level of convenience of mobile apps that leverage the hardware on your phone. If you are ready to invest some money into an app, you can give users a much smoother experience.
Budget is one of the main reasons people choose to develop a website instead of an app. If you can't fit the high costs of an app in your budget, but plan to in the future - building a native web application is a cost-effective way to implement your idea.
These resource links will help you get started. You will find literature, FAQs, tutorials, online courses and tools to steer you in the right direction. Read all these and you'll have a good foundation to make the right choice.
Mobile App Development Resources:
- Mobile Apps Online Courses: from Udemy. Great selection of courses that can help you build your first app.
- Differences Between a Web App and a Mobile App: learn about the differences between developing a mobile app, vs developing a web app.
- History of Mobile App Design: here is a brief history of mobile app design.
Website Development Resources:
- How Much Does a Website Really Cost?: determining the cost of a website is hard to standardize. We demystify the process of paying for a website, from start to finish.
- Choose a CMS: content management systems are indispensable tools for creating, managing, and maintaining a website. Learn how to find the right one for your site.
- What is a Website: this is a section in our Ultimate Guide to Web Hosting. This covers all your bases when it comes to finding a place to host your website.
Now you should have enough info to answer this all-important question: website or app? Good luck!