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Mobile Website Vs. Mobile Apps

I get asked a lot if I make mobile applications. I actually don't and there is good reason for that...

01 October 2014
Josh Davidson

As part of a commitment to myself to never stop learning, I went on a Mobile App development course, put on by Calvium and hosted by our friends at Air Studio on Penryn Campus. This was around 6 months ago now, but I’m only just getting round to discussing it.

Calvium are an App development company who seemingly specialize in App Trails, particularly being proud of Knee-High Rambles & Their Tower of London Prisoner Rescue. They created a web-based app creation tool known as AppFurnace, which they use to tutor those in the course on fairly basic app creation.

App Trails.

The concept of app trails is based around using GPS technology. As you move along the trail, your mobile device will have itself triangulated by visible satellites to determine your position within (roughly) 15metres. This way the app can trigger events when the device enters the co-ordinates that contain whatever the user should respond to. One of the course members was creating a GPS trigger that would tell users a story upon entering a rock formation that held some mythical relevance.

App Trails are fairly easy to develop using the AppFurnace kit, as well as creating bar-code scanners and making use of the camera tech. I, in my never-ending struggle with making things easy for myself, wanted to create an app that told users the hexadecimal value of a colour. It would select them out of photos taken on a mobile device, so that you could use the real-life colour in web and digital design. Of course this would provide difficult with my own, and AppFurnace’s, limited capabilities.

Some rough visuals for something I doubt I’ll ever get to make.

Some of the tech in mobile devices is very useful, but does the downsides of publishing a mobile app justify potential gimmicks?

Store Publishing.

Calvium were very up-front and honest about the implications of creating a mobile app. Not only can you expect to pay several thousand for the design and development of your company’s app, but publishing and marketing will set you back too, as well as time. One thing they said that particularly stuck out to me (and I have always thought this myself) “Apps don’t do your marketing for you.” People don’t just endlessly roam through the app store or Google play and just happen to see your app, especially if it’s location-based like an app trail. As you enter these stores, you are met with a wall of games, popular tools like Instagram (and all it’s knock-offs) and whatever the store feels like promoting, you can’t really rely on it to be discovered without putting your money into marketing it properly.

Publishing-wise, having a license for each store needs to be obtained if you are planning to make it on multiple platforms. Setting this at around $124 a year for just the two major stores. Even then, there are limitations imposed by Apple’s store policy; effectively they won’t take any old crap. Explaining why Apple’s store nets the most paid apps, when Google play will accept anything. There is a trade-off however; you have to wait for the app to be verified by Apple’s quality team, this can take anything from 2 weeks to 6 months. Apple will always have the final say; your app might be great, but if they are developing a rival product then you may not get a fair trial.


Factor this in with how much more work and money goes into making a native app. Native apps use the device’s development software i.e. objective C for Apple, to produce the app, with all of their buttons and styles integrated. This means that the app will have to be designed at least twice for Apple and Android devices, which ends up meaning you pay double. Another blow to this approach is that whenever there is a new update to the operating system (or OS as you may know it) you have to redesign with all these elements again! Ouch.

Just think of all the apps you’re not seeing here.

I sense your worry, dearest reader, but there is another option.


If you are making an app cross-platform, using a potentially limiting dev-tool, then a quicker (however hardware excluding) alternative exists in the mobile web. I am often very dubious about mobile web, but I’ll cover that in another article. Effectively, there are several upsides to this alternative that would be troublesome for an app. Namely the positioning and layout of elements. As you may have seen, responsive design is taking strides in the web world and makes life easy for varying screen without having to pay for both a desktop and mobile website. Positioning using AppFurnace is very difficult to get right across (surprisingly) screen heights because they are very often fixed layouts, as opposed to their fluid & scrolling web counter parts.

Calvium did even go as far to state: “You are going to need a responsive mobile site anyway.” So why not kill the two birds with one stone? After all, mobile web is instant publishing; you don’t have to pay for a license to do so (obviously hosting and domain purchasing) and you can make changes without having to wait for approval with each update, or paying to re-publish it again.

Download Limits.

You also don’t have to worry about embedded font limitations (you can have any font you want on a website) nor having 2 versions of the same image for retina displays, just to make it look nice. This actually tots-up the download size of an app, which is a very big deciding factor (along with price) for a user deciding on downloading it. If the app is over 50mb, it will have to be downloaded over Wi-Fi. If your app is context based and outside, you’re not going to have Wi-Fi, and most certainly not embedded video!

You can get some data into the original download, but it won’t bode well for your app by requesting heavy-duty files in areas of bad signal.

An Example.

One of the other course mates was hyping-up an “experiment” she had performed during a degree show a year or two ago. She placed QR Codes around student work that, when scanned with a phone, would play a video of that student talking about their work to create a more immersive experience. This didn’t actually work that straightforwardly, instead it took you to a word press site that read a lot about the show and then gave a list of all the students displaying, which after button pressing would play the desired video. Why they didn’t just use the QR Code to link directly to the video is beyond me, especially considering the failings of their mobile word press site. She was on the course to explore whether apps were a better option for this kind of approach, and as the long and short answer was no, she instead made an app involving dogs or sheep or whatever.

Ending Notion.

Apparently, there is no right and wrong answer to the creative solution presented by an in-context design problem. Mobile web won’t really allow you to use GPS, the accelerometer, the camera or maps particularly well, but instead it will provide responsiveness (given the merit of the designer), JavaScript and advanced CSS styling as well as time and cost savings. There are still problems in the mobile web world in which I cover in a different article, but for now I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about mobile Apps Vs mobile Web with one more thought:

Do you really need either?

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