Websites, web apps and mobile apps are all – of course – key digital platforms for one business or another. As online activity increasingly dominates economic activity more generally, these platforms have become more and more important to the businesses that use them.
It doesn’t follow, however, that every business will be best suited to every available platform – or that every platform can perform every business function equally well. It’s important to understand your own business and its goals fully, of course – and also to understand each platform, and their capacities.
In this way, a business can select the appropriate digital mix for its segment of the market and its strategic aims within it – and achieve optimal results. This is often where experts come in, helping businesses understand the digital landscape and the many options within it, and devising the approach of best fit. First step? Understanding the difference between the key platforms!
As their names imply, there is some overlap between websites, web apps and mobile apps – but equally they are each distinct offerings, with their respective advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons. In this blog post, we’ll go through each of them in turn, offer a sort of introduction to the topic – so you don’t need to waste time on the basics when you next call a digital agency.
Let’s start with the one many of us think we know best, and have certainly known for the longest period of time: websites.
Given that we all probably look at a lot of these every day, “what is a website?” might seem like a very basic question to ask. But, just like when a child asks why the sky is blue we might feel stumped, actually it’s the simple questions which can give the most interesting answers.
Don’t take the humble website for granted, then. It remains a powerful tool. Effectively a collection of virtual pages, collected under a single domain name – www.image-plus.co.uk, for instance – a simple webpage looks rather like a paper brochure: it has various pieces of content filed according to topic, and using a menu users can – hopefully easily! – find exactly what they want.
That content might be in text form or visual; more recently audio and video have become important elements of many websites. Equally, websites have become increasingly interactive, with ecommerce in particular becoming one of the primary purposes of a website for many businesses. But more about this interactivity element shortly.
Ultimately, a website should be seen as a “headquarters” for a business online. It is a shop window, a clearing house for all the information a business might need its clients to know about it. Think of it as the digital home of your business’s brand, a place to set out your stall.
If these fundamentals of a website have barely changed over the years, this particular platform continues to evolve. Most important is responsiveness – a principle of web design which ensures that a website displays well on all devices.
This reflects the proliferation of different display media since websites were first invented: desktop monitors of different sizes, laptops, tablets, smartphones and so on. A responsive website checks what device is displaying it – and essentially rearranges itself accordingly. These mobile websites are a key part of what websites today should be.
The other big change in website technology – one we have already mentioned in passing – has been enhanced interactivity. But in truth, this takes us a little away from websites and towards the second of our key platforms: web apps.
Put very simply, a web app is a thing on a website that does a thing. Simplicity doesn’t really get us very far, though, so let’s go a bit deeper!
Let’s start with a few concrete examples. Many of us use webmail – Gmail or Hotmail, for example – and this is a web app: essentially, a programme that we can access via a website that performs a specialist task (in this case, the sending, receiving and displaying of email).
Many such web applications look indistinguishable from ordinary websites – these are often called “progressive web apps”, and offer seamless functionality that a business can often deploy within their wider website, offering additional value to clients.
The primary benefit of web apps is their cross-compatibility: anyone with access to a web browser – and that’s a lot of people – can use a web app. For a business, that maximises the audience. That said, web apps rely on an internet connection – they can’t be downloaded for offline use because they sit on a web server (often the same one that hosts a business’s website). That said, this “always online” character has a benefit: it means that software once installed locally on many devices can be accessed anywhere by everyone. For internal business use, this is often really helpful – especially in these days of remote working.
There is one other type of web app, which is slightly different to the above. A “hybrid web app” embeds a website inside a mobile app that can be downloaded by a customer. These are often relatively cheaper forms of web app, but can work for simple purposes – and offer a recognisable interface for users.
Mobile apps are those widgets of software you download onto your phone or tablet. They have become so ubiquitous – “oh, there’s an app for that!” – that they are often referred to simply as “apps”, as if web apps don’t even exist. (Perhaps this is testament to the web app’s integration with websites – one of its key benefits, so in some senses even when they are forgotten they are being complemented!)
We’ve already mentioned one type of mobile app: the “hybrid”. This is essentially a packaged website, downloadable for a mixture of offline viewing and online interaction. Before responsive web design became so successful, hybrid apps were especially useful for businesses wanting to get their “shop window” reliably onto their customers’ phones. But even now they are very helpful because – like web apps – they are broadly compatible across many devices.
The other type of mobile app, the “native app”, is built specifically for a particular operating system – Apple’s iOS, for example, or its open-source rival, Android. These apps can be downloaded from the relevant app store.
The native app’s bespoke production often means they are more seamlessly integrated with the customer’s device, making them a pleasure to use – and an app’s main benefit for a business is its ability to integrate a brand into a customer’s daily life, so this excellent user experience is important.
The disadvantage, of course, is that a business often has to make more than one native app: one for every device available. But many businesses choose to aim only at the most popular platforms, or aim at a demographic that uses one almost exclusively. Other businesses see the better user experience of native apps as worth the additional development time; but hybrid apps are always available if necessary.
It’s increasingly likely that your business might need to build more than one type of platform depending on audience and strategy. Websites and apps complement each other, and both web apps and mobile apps might be required to redefine internal business processes. Similarly, many businesses have beautiful websites but may also encourage customers to download an expertly tooled app which is fantastic at achieving one thing: purchasing goods, for example, or booking appointments. A website is a great general tool, an app a superb specific one. We often need a bit of both.
In other words, a business’s goals will often be best met by a mixed approach that selects websites, web apps and mobile apps appropriately for each task. This may sound complicated – but it’s no more so than choosing a hammer for nails and a screwdriver for screws.
And that’s the take-home here: choose the right tool for the job. Don’t choose between, but build a strategic mix of websites, web apps and mobile apps!
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