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What are the differences between a Mobile Website, a Responsive Website and a Mobile App?

February 3, 2016

Mobile Websites, Responsive Websites and Mobile Apps; which is best for my company?

I field the question often when we’re in the early stages of a discovery project with clients:

Should I have a mobile website? What about a Mobile App? What does ‘Responsive Website’ mean?

If you’re about to start a new web project, and have been struggling with how to handle mobile visitors, this article should provide you with clarity on the topic. desktop-laptop-tablet-mobile

Laying the Foundation

Before we can get too deep into the comparison I’d like to build a solid foundation so that you clearly understand what the 3 different options have to offer.

What is a Mobile Website?

Mobile websites were historically, how organizations and groups made their first step into mobile content. Well over 10 years ago, mobile technologies were still young, and at the time it was considered acceptable to build a completely different, standalone version of your website for mobile devices.

The idea is a visitor would visit your website and if the website detected you were on a mobile website, it would redirect you to the mobile version of the website, typically at an address like

This typically meant that your content was duplicated, and often times modified to fit mobile devices.  A few years later platforms emerged where you could use the same content for both versions of your websites, however these platforms were generally late to the game as a new technology was maturing: Responsive Web Design.

In general, developing a mobile website is an outdated approach that has since been replaced by other technologies. Let’s look a bit deeper at the pros and cons.

  • Possibility of optimizations for mobile devices (though compatibility is never guaranteed with all devices)
  • Often results in duplication of effort in managing your website (you now have two websites) and content (again, you now have twice the content)
  • Often results in reduced performance due to the detection and redirection for mobile devices
  • This type of solution is not universally compatible with all mobile devices

What is a Responsive Website?

A responsive website, which is a derived from the concept of Responsive Web Design, is a website that is built to seamlessly and effectively adapt to any device, regardless of mobility.

In other words:

A responsive website will look great on all screens, from very wide desktops to tiny smartphones.

As Responsive Web Design matured as a concept, and with it processes and concrete solutions, it quickly gained traction and replaced Mobile Websites (as discussed above) as the de facto standard for mobile web design.

In 2016 you are hard pressed to find websites that are optimized for mobile devices that aren’t built with this concept, and it has evolved and matured into a very stable process.

At the heart of Responsive Web Design and responsive websites is the concept that the user experience is optimized for the user based on their device dimensions. This means that the very same website you load on a 24” iMac will be as useable to you as it is to someone who loads it up on an iPhone 6S+ while traveling abroad.

Let’s now take a look at the pros and cons of Responsive Web Design.

  • Very robust: Building a responsive website protects against technological advances in mobile devices; as new devices enter the ecosystem, it is likely that your website will perform well on the new device(s).
  • Very flexible: Responsive websites are designed to be flexible and fit any device dimension.
  • Device Agnostic: Responsive websites don’t care that you are on an iPhone, or a Blackberry. They simply care about the dimensions of your screen and automatically adjust the content to ensure you get the best experience.
  • One single website for all devices, there is no need to manage separate content, websites and domains.
  • Easy to optimize for SEO, and with Google’s April 2015 change to its algorithm, it’s expected that having a mobile responsive website is a positive signal to Google’s search engine.
  • Cost is relatively low, since your web design company won’t have to build an entirely new website for you but instead add a bit of time to the main website design project to have that website come out mobile responsive
  • Responsive websites can be daunting and technical for inexperienced web design teams. Find a vendor that is reputable.

What is a Mobile App?

Mobile Apps are technically very different from the other two options we’ve discussed, but they serve a very similar purpose: Optimize the user experience for mobile devices.

In the context of Mobile Websites and Responsive Websites, we are typically optimizing for mobile devices. We have a goal of minimizing development costs while allowing the largest portion of mobile users the ability to use the website. In the context of Mobile Apps, we are optimizing specifically for a particular device or platform.

A platform is the base software that runs on mobile devices. iPhones and iPads share the same platform (iOS), and many Android phones and tablets share the same platform, Android.

To develop a Mobile App (more specifically a native mobile app), you need a specialized team that can build your Mobile App for the specific platform you are targeting, and often times if you are targeting more than one platform, you might require the support of multiple teams or vendors.

  • Mobile Apps allow you to very specifically optimize the user experience by targeting specific platforms, and even specific devices within those platforms
  • You can customize your UI design to fit within the guidelines of a platform, so that users that are familiar with iOS are also very familiar with your app from the outset.
  • Mobile Apps provide easy access to components found on phones, making the integration of cameras, sensors and microphones easier to accomplish in mobile apps.
  • Mobile Apps have access to application stores, which can greatly increase your mobile app’s exposure to potential clients.
  • This option can be very expensive if you are targeting a platform, and even more expensive if you want to target the three more common platforms (Android, iOS and Blackberry OS). It isn’t uncommon to receive quotes in the 6-figures to build a moderately simple mobile app that’s compatible with all three platforms.
  • Maintenance and new feature rollouts can be delayed due to scheduling restrictions put in place by the owners of the platform your Mobile App is developed for.
  • If you built your mobile app across multiple platforms, you will need to provide individual maintenance to each platform which will cost more financially.
  • The user will need to download the mobile app to access it. So if one of the goals to your website is to make content easily accessible, a mobile app may not be the right choice for your situation.


As professionals in the field of web design and digital marketing, I invite you to reach out to my team if you require support as you plan your next important digital project. Sometimes the path to take isn’t as always as clear based on the circumstance, so if you have any questions about the topics and technologies discussed in this article, please reach out to us.