Developers looking to reach the mobile audience (and who isn’t these days?) have to determine which mobile platforms to code for, which ones to skip and how to approach the design for their mobile website itself.

But before even getting started, there’s one question many small companies have to face: which do you build first? Do you build the mobile website before or after building a mobile application, be it for Android, iPhone, Blackberry or whatever platform you want to reach? Or would you be better off starting with an app?

On the Technology.Inc website, we came across a helpful resource for developers struggling to answer that question – a checklist of six items that should help steer developers in the right direction. According to this list, the following factors should be weighed (we’re summarizing the findings here, for more in-depth explanations, please read the original article):


  1. Utility: To reach the broadest audience, you need a mobile website. If you go with an app, you’ll have to continue to develop apps for the most popular platforms.
  2. Need: Local businesses (think restaurants, retail shops) do better with mobile websites because customers generally just need basic information like a phone number or address. When the product is a service, like finance or transportation, apps are better. Apps are also better when usage is heavy.
  3. Traffic: Apps are better for situations when you want to push a lot of information to customers, or when repeated interaction is likely. Also, if your website is already seeing a lot of traffic from mobile devices, you should launch a mobile site promptly.
  4. Content: Text-based content often does well on a mobile site, while media-rich content is generally better within an app.
  5. Availability: If you rely on and see a lot of search engine referrals for discovery about your business, you should consider building a mobile website. Mobile searches will reveal your site, but would not point to your app.
  6. Cost: If cost is an important factor, consider a mobile website, which costs 50%-80% of the cost of building your main website. The article also quoted Aaron Maxwell of Mobile Web Up, a mobile design firm for businesses, saying that a well-done mobile app can cost as much as $35,000-$50,000 on each platform. (There are low-cost alternatives, however).

It was also interesting to read the comments on the article, which also offered some insights into this dilemma. Said one commenter, Rob Woodbridge, “the decision between a mobile website and a mobile app is not a real question: If you or your business have a website, mobile is just another platform that it needs to work on. Period.” That’s a sentiment that we think most will agree with.

He also points to another article which deftly explains when you do not need “an app for that.” For example, if your mobile app doesn’t make money for your business or enhance it in some way, if it doesn’t stand out in a crowded market, if you don’t have the resources to commit to it or if you could be more successful leveraging something already out there, then you may want to forgo app development, the article says.

Another commenter, Andew Milne, pitches in as well, saying that the “app space is designed for a specific job,” while the mobile Web “can be more fluid if designed well.”

Have you had to decide between the mobile Web and an app? If so, what did you decide?