If you develop a website today, chances are pretty good that you will face pressure to "appify" it — meaning creating a mobile application that users can run as an alternative to accessing your website through a web browser. There's some evidence that a majority of end users prefer apps over websites (although other studies have found different results).
Plus, from a business perspective, there's an easy case to be made that engaging with users through apps is better than through websites because apps provide more control — not to mention enhanced ability to collect data, which is something that many businesses seek to do, for better or worse.
But that doesn't mean all developers should cave to pressure from executives or app-happy end users to turn their websites into an app. From a technical perspective, there remain a variety of solid reasons not to create apps as alternatives to websites. When it comes to deciding between mobile apps and websites, this article discusses seven reasons why developers should stick with plain-old websites rather than building flashy mobile apps.
1. Apps Are More Device- and OS-Dependent
Generally speaking, compared with a website, the performance and user experience of an application are more likely to vary due to differences between mobile devices and operating systems. On a website, browser differences may impact the way the site behaves, but factors like hardware functionality and operating system configuration are not very likely to impact the site.
This means that developing websites requires less testing and less worrying about whether end users with devices you didn't test for will run into user experience issues. As long as you test your websites for mainstream mobile browsers, they will probably work pretty well for almost all of your users. But unless you test your app for the tens of thousands of different mobile device and operating system combos out there, it's hard to guarantee a great experience for every user.
2. Websites Load Faster
In most cases, a website will probably load faster for your users than an app. The main reason why is simple: Websites run in web browsers, and it's likely that your users already have their browser open, so less initialization needs to take place for the site to load. In contrast, to run an app, the app has to launch from scratch.
To be sure, load speed for both apps and websites can vary depending on lots of factors — such as if and how you cache data and exactly what needs to be loaded when a session begins — but by and large, websites will deliver faster loading times than apps.
3. Websites Persist Between Devices
A common problem with mobile apps is that they aren't always migrated when users switch to a new device. That means that users who don't want to take the time to reinstall your app could end up abandoning it.
Websites aren't subject to this issue. Your website can run in any browser on any device, with no installation necessary. In this sense, websites offer a simpler way for developers to distribute their software to users compared with apps.
4. Websites Mean Simpler Development Operations
If you choose to create an app to accompany your website, you will likely end up having to create and manage an additional software delivery pipeline for the app — or possibly multiple additional pipelines, if you need to build both Android and iOS versions of your app. Much of the app's code will be the same as that for your website, but it's not all identical, so you need separate sets of CI/CD processes.
This means that deploying a mobile app could more or less double the amount of work that developers have to do. But it won't really double what they produce, because the website and app will basically do the same thing but in different forms. It would probably be a better use of development resources to create a separate website rather than creating an app that makes an existing website — and the CI/CD pipeline that powers it — redundant.
5. Websites Simplify Security
Because websites run inside browsers, they are more isolated from the devices that host them and the data that resides on those devices than are mobile apps. This means that security problems that impact websites tend to be less serious than those that impact mobile apps.
This is not to say that you can simply ignore website security issues; insecure websites could certainly lead to breaches of a user's device. But the overall risk is a bit lower than it is for an app.
6. Websites Are Easier and More Reliable to Update
Most mobile apps update automatically. But in the event that they don't for some reason — like broken permissions settings on the device or — users could end up with apps that have performance or security issues because the app developers can't push out updates.
Developers don't need to worry about lack of updates with websites. Because site content is hosted on servers they control, they can push out updates whenever they want, without worrying about what's happening on users' devices. All website users get an up-to-date experience, which is not always the case for apps.
7. Websites Use Less Storage Space
Apart from any data that they cache in the browser, websites don't take up any space on users' devices. You can't say the same for apps, which can easily annoy users by sucking up the limited storage capacity of their phones and tablets.
As a result, developers need to work harder when building apps to manage persistent storage in an efficient way. With websites, storage management is simply simpler.
Mobile Apps vs. Websites: Just Say No
I'll make a confession: I was inspired to write this article when a website I visit frequently — which hosts "all the news that's fit to print" — began nagging me to download its app instead of viewing content through its website. That got me thinking about how much better the world would be if developers weren't constantly trying to foist apps upon users when websites can get the job done just as well.
Then I realized that, in many cases, it's probably not the developers themselves who are trying to coerce users into downloading apps. It's their bosses, who want customers to download apps because it gives businesses more control over customers and the customer experience — not to mention lots of opportunities to collect data.
So, if you're a developer who, like me, resents pressure to download a company's mobile app when its website works just fine, use the tips above to push back against pressure from the higher-ups to appify your organization's website. Tell them that running an app is just not a technically sound idea, no matter how great it sounds for the business.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.