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Responsive Sites vs Mobile Apps

HTML5 logo vs App store logo

The battle begins!

A few months ago, I got into a discussion with my brother over the value of responsive web sites versus native mobile apps. As a web person, I was firmly in the responsive camp and as a diehard programmer who’s been tinkering with Objective-C, my bro was in the latter. This being a family affair, we got stuck into our arguments without mercy.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that I’m bias towards all things web and responsive but regardless of that (and with the smidgen of reason I have left) I still feel like there are very strong, logical reasons to opt for responsive web solutions over mobile (phone and tablet) app ones. Perhaps the most compelling argument for me is that a lot of apps out there don’t actually offer anything beyond what a web site does already and that, in fact, many of them are simply shell wrappers for web content. My brother’s hobby app was exactly this and there’s a huge number of others out there as well: from transport (think airports and airways) and weather to shopping and social networking, a lot of apps exist that do nothing but interact with web feeds, offering the exact same web site experience albeit wrapped up in an app UI.

Indeed, the whole rise of the app several years ago was based on the trend of people moving more and more towards mobile computing. Whether it be an airlines app like BA or a news app like IGN, a lot of them were first created to serve the needs of our changing lifestyles before responsive design was even a twinkle in Ethan Marcotte’s eye. Just like having a separate mobile site, many apps were created to serve users on very particular devices before the concept of having a single ubiquitous web site existed and this purpose still seems to be the – perhaps redundant – driving force behind a lot of app development. As the number and variety of mobile devices continues to skyrocket, it seems somewhat strange to ignore the huge benefits of responsive sites and still try to serve specific experiences to every device individually (along with all of the headaches of maintenance and lack of consistency that it brings).

Funnily enough, social networks are an interesting beast in this regard because one would think them to be at the bleeding edge of web technologies when in fact they’re not. Facebook still serves up a separate mobile site alongside a very poor tablet experience, trying to push users to use their apps instead. Google + and Twitter are a little better on the web front but still aren’t perfect, shoving their native apps in our face at every opportunity (I’m perhaps just a tad tired of getting constantly redirect to the G+ app when I visit their perfectly useable site on a tablet). I can’t decide if they’re just slow to adapt or know something I don’t. Interestingly, Sencha, a development company out in California, built an HTML5 version of the Facebook app that out performs the native iOS one. Take from that what you will.

“So, when Mark Zuckerberg said HTML5 wasn’t ready, we took a little offense to the comment.”

Jamie Avins and Jacky Nguyen, Sencha

Of course, many apps are apps because they offer features and technical solutions that just aren’t possible or practical on a web site. I get that. I have nothing against a good app and I wouldn’t dream of giving up my firm favourites of Dropbox, Evernote, comiXology or FatBooth (interesting insight into my life there). Decent gaming would also be inconceivable without standalone apps. Equally, there is something very appealing about the closed ecosystems that apps can bring. Creating software for all Mac devices, for instance, that offers a consistent user experience and syncs user data across each invisibly makes perfect sense when you’re delivering a tool that has features a web site can’t provide.

Expanding on that thought, I do completely understand the desire to create immersive, tailored experiences for users via an app, forcing them to focus on what’s at hand without the temptation to just close the browser tab and move on. It’s one of the reasons I think software like iA Writer, for instance, is so powerful and so deserving of its standalone apps, even if what it does could theoretically be accomplished with a single responsive site.

My personal love for responsive sites aside, I think mobile apps as a whole are incredibly valuable and will never be replaced in their entirety by pure web solutions. However, I do think that mere shell or vanity apps that only serve duplicate web site content are becoming more redundant and harder to justify by the day. Equally, when weighing up whether or not go down the app route or a  responsive web one, a lot of the decisions will boil down to what restrictions each approach puts in place, who your potential audience is and how you envisage people using your product.

Regardless though, no matter if an app is the right approach or not for your product, it’s still no excuse to not provide a responsive web site in some form. Facebook, I’m looking at you.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.




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  1. Andrew February 13, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    It is true that we debate responsiveness Vs native App at most family gatherings!
    The important thing to not loose sight of is engaging your audience.
    Regardless of native App or Sencha/Phone Gap App, the App Stores (Apple’s and Google’s) are great publicity for your products and a means to have your product on the home screen of your beloved user. Easily accessible and always there when they switch on their mobile phone or tablet.
    If it were more popular to have a web shortcut on your home screen, then I’d understand the move to non-native Apps to sign up to your local Science Club or buy your coffee in the morning, but you should be setting your sights on the home screen of your users – you want them to see Primate when they unlock their phone to check their Facebook status or reply to a text message and not when they look through their Safari/Chrome bookmarks :-)

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