Michael Cleland


Mobile web

Why you shouldn’t develop an iPhone app but get your responsive design website going instead


Since I wrote this post in 2011, I’ve updated this post to reflect responsive design to blend desktop and mobile websites into one.

Have you got Managers, Directors or even politicians and people “that love their iPhone so much” at work who are mad keen on you getting an app developed?

Well here’s my view of why you should reconsider … or persuade others to look at other options.

I’m not a fan of apps when a mobile website — accessible by all types of mobile devices — will do the job.

I read an article from Recruitment Directory on why you should build a mobile friendly website instead of building just an app for iPhones.

The summary is:

  • Websites work on any device (iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, Nokia, Blackberry, Palm)
  • The long-term best bet is to go with standards compliant HTML, whereas platforms can disappear (think Palm’s webOS, Nokia’s Symbian, possibly BlackBerry, even the previous Windows Mobile – version 6.5)
  • If your mobile website, such as m.casey.vic.gov.au, pulls content directly from your standard website (which Casey’s, the website I developed, does), then you only have to update the content once and it appears on both websites.
  • In order to use an App version, you must download it – it becomes “yet another app” on your device
  • A mobile website is just a bookmark / favourite in your browser. Most mobile devices can place a website bookmark on their home screen, effectively the same as an app’s icon
  • Websites can be updated much easier than an app
  • Google can find the website and promote it to the world. An app cannot be found or indexed by Google
  • So much cheaper to develop a website than an app
  • No need to get it approved by Apple
  • Not just developing for iPhones, which, while they are popular now, the smartphone market is becoming more diverse. That is, not everyone is buying iPhones
  • Building iPhone apps tie you into using “yet another vendor” to maintain your content

Now I should mention that this applies to apps for any device – iPhone, iPad, Android, Nokia, Windows Mobile etc..

Even location based services can be done through websites – see theFederal Government website m.toiletmap.gov.au which can pick up your phone’s GPS location to find a public toilet nearby.

Apps should only be developed if they take advantage of a specific function that can’t be done through your browser yet — about the only thing I can think of is something that might use the camera to take a photo and send it somewhere. But even then, posting it to Twitter / Twitpic or just emailing the photo would do the job. In fact, upcoming standards for HTML5 will let you hook into a mobile’s camera to take photos.

What I did at Casey and what you should do

Develop a mobile version of your well thought out, standards compliant responsive design website. I developed a mobile version of Casey’s website at m.casey.vic.gov.au – the entire desktop website is available through it.

But the difference is the front page – it has the “most likely to be used on mobiles” things on the front page — contact details, news, emergencies, lost pets etc..

I incorporated a browser sniffer on Casey’s website — this detects if you’re on a mobile device and if you’ve gone to the standard website at www.casey.vic.gov.au it will automatically redirect you to the mobile website at m.casey.vic.gov.au.

What about responsive design?

Since I originally wrote this post in 2011, responsive design has gained momentum and some great stuff is being done out there. Websites that use responsive design will shrink (or expand) to fit the screen size of your device, be it 1920 × 1080 screen, through to 10 inch tablet or mobile phone screen.

The trick is to ensure that all of the elements in your page (ie., full screen photos etc.) aren’t pushed through to a tiny 4 inch mobile screen.

Developers should use a combination of “web smarts” to only push small elements through to your device. That is, images that have been scaled down to display at the right size — both in dimensions and file size — for your device’s screen size.

The same care should apply to Javascript and CSS – if you have a bunch of fancy scripts that are designed for a desktop or widescreen experience, there’s no point forcing a mobile phone to download these files if it is never going to use them. They’ll just slow down your page loading time, as well as unnecessarily strain the little brain of your little device.

Back in 2011, I was very wary of responsive design because I don’t think a lot of developers had sharpened their website publishing tools to cater for it, so huge images and unneeded stylesheets and scripts were being pushed down to mobiles (remember that mobiles were a lot slower way back in 2011). If developers didn’t do responsive design properly, there was no way that web publishers, with little or no HTML experience, were going have the slightest clue what responsive design was about.

Now in 2013, as I’m updating this post, responsive design doing a much better job and will improve more in time. I’m now fully a fan or responsive design, if it’s done properly.

Some links for light reading

The use of mobiles to access the web is growing fast and will continue to do so. Here’s a list of links I’ve compiled that make for interesting reading.

Ask your website developer / vendor about a mobile website. It takes just a little bit of work, but it is worth it.

So, in summary, it’s a “no” to apps from me! That is, unless there’s an actual need.

What do you think?

Author: Michael Cleland

Michael is a passionate web geek who is sure that most problems can be solved with a big bowl of ice cream. A believer in social good and fan of great, useful content, Michael is an advocate for web accessibility, usability and mobile web based on open standards. You can find Michael on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. You can read more on Michael in the About page.

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