Difference between responsive website, mobile website, and mobile app

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

When it comes to online “mobile friendly” products there are 3 strategies that can suit your needs:

  • Responsive websites
  • Dedicated mobile websites
  • Mobile Apps

It is not uncommon to mix these terms up; but in fact they are 3 very different products and very different options. This article is designed to amend this issue and help you decide which route is the most cost-effective and the most suitable for your business.

Are you looking for a new website?

If you haven’t yet acquired an online solution to your business, or you’re looking to redesign your site then a responsive website would be your cost-effective route. It may not have occurred to implement mobile friendly designs into your website, but with the rapid rise of web ready smart devices and tablets, neglecting this can segregate your website from 17.4% of global web traffic (http://mashable.com/2013/08/20/mobile-web-traffic). As a result, it is becoming crucial that you take mobile audie into account with any newly emerging website.

This is where responsive web design is here to help. This is an approach aimed at crafting sites to provide an optimal viewing experience for the user, providing easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling across a wide range of mobile devices.


A fully versatile website will take into account various devices ranging from iPhones, iPads and Android tablets – to Desktop monitors, TV screens and Projectors. This maximises readability for users of your website. This is crucial to capture and retain the users attention and inform your audience faster.

But why is this the most cost effective route for your business? In development terms a responsive website uses the same technology as a non responsive website. So if you are looking for a new build then responsive design can be incorporated cheaper than other routes.

Have you got a website that isn’t mobile friendly?

What if you already have an existing website, but it is not up to date or optimised for mobile devices? Then a dedicated mobile website may be your most cost-effective solution.

Sometimes you may have a website that cannot easily be transferred to smaller screen sizes:

  • Your sites structure may be too complicated for mobile.
  • Your site does not load quickly on mobile signals such as 3G.
  • Your website uses older technology which shouldn’t be replicated in a mobile solution.

If any of the above applies to you then it may be cheaper for your company to invest in a separate mobile site. This can be achieved by adding a suffix or prefix to your current domain and re-directing to a mobile friendly version of your existing website whenever it is being displayed on a smaller device such as a phone or tablet.

Like responsive web design, this encapsulates the usage of various screen sizes and devices but is effectively a separate website using the same content.

Because this will be separate from your desktop website, you do not have to change it to add a mobile version, instead we would add a checkpoint which will check the device and screen size and direct the user to the appropriate site. This could be useful for existing users familiar to your desktop site, and additionally eliminating the pinch and zoom navigational approach your mobile users had to put up with before. Dedicated mobile website also use the same technology as responsive and non-responsive websites.




Do you feel your product would be suitable on an app store?

A mobile app is entirely different to the other routes, it is more specialist and can use different technologies for different operating systems. Mobile apps can be native or cross-platform.

Native apps use coding languages specific to a singular devices Operating System (OS). For example: Apple’s iOS uses the objective C programming whereas Android OS uses Java, therefore producing an app on both platforms essentially requires 2 builds. This is the most expensive option but provides your product with tighter control over the experience you wish to offer such as:

  • Access to specific on-board functionality available on that device
  • Better ability to offer an optimised experience. (such as with images)
  • Offline access gives your app the ability to be used without an internet connection as it is not restricted to the phones browser.


Cross-platform mobile applications on the other hand offer similar control across multiple platforms. This means they will be cheaper to develop than multiple native apps. They are not as optimised but are made using more popular programming languages which are appropriate for all major platforms. This means it is possible to stretch 1 build over many platforms. Mobile apps come in a variety of forms, they can mimic features of native applications, or they can be in the form of an offline web applications. Unlike native apps, Web apps are not downloaded from the devices app store. Instead they are saved to the phone from the browser. It is essentially a web page that has offline functionality. Something like this could be a cheaper alternative to a native app if your product does not make use of the specific device functionality (such as audio, video, touch and GPS functionality).

Mobile apps is the most expensive of the three routes but provide your business with options that could dramatically widen the scope of your revenue streams, or boost you ahead of competition.

Mobile apps can take different approaches to revenue streams in comparison to websites which can be beneficial in a few ways, here are a few approaches that the app store provides:

Pay for the app
Unlike websites, you can charge for your users for Apps. Prices vary from $0.99 to $999. If your app is worth the price then this could be a great income stream.

Freemium model
Another approach is to allow a free initial download with an in-app purchase system that opens exclusive functionality to paying customers.

Advert Network
A more controversial approach, third parties will pay to have their banner adverts in your app. This usually works on a Pay Per Click scheme (you get paid every time a user clicks on an advert).

Depending on the type of app you require, any of these avenues have advantages and disadvantages. So despite being the most expensive option, it doesn’t mean it cannot be cost-effective if you have a product that will benefit from being on an app store. To break costs down further, it is not uncommon to build your app on 1 platform and then moving to another platform if the app is a success.

To conclude

All routes have their advantage and disadvantages. If you are looking for a new website that maximises its reach then a responsive website is your solution because it is not limited to device or platform. If you already have a desktop site that is too complex to be made responsive, then separating your mobile users to a dedicated site is more effective for you. This way also allows you specifically manipulate your site for mobile users. But if your product demands native or offline functionality, then Mobile apps give your business more exclusivity and extra revenue streams.

The purpose of all these mobile solutions is to maximise the user engagement across mobile devices. According to Jakob Nielsen (2011) ‘Users often leave Web pages in 10-20 seconds’. This means that in a very short amount of time for your business to sell/demonstrate understanding of its product to users. With 17.4% of global traffic on mobiles, you cannot afford to lose crucial seconds.

Deciding on a route for yourself depends on what you want to achieve. Give Zeta a call today to work with your business, and build your success online.


Z. Fox. (2013), 17.4% of global web traffic is from mobile, New York, Mashable. Online – http://mashable.com/2013/08/20/mobile-web-traffic/

J. Nielsen. (2011), How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?, Nielsen Norman Group, California. Online – http://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-long-do-users-stay-on-web-pages/