This article weighs the advantages and disadvantages of having a responsive website over a mobile app. Though both the approaches provide an opportunity to mobile users to browse through the online content, one must select the optimum solution based on the type of content, user interactions and targeted audience.
When it comes to serving information to mobile users, there are two major approaches. Responsive web applications or mobile web apps make use of different cascading style sheets (CSS) for displaying the same online content in different layouts according to mobile resolution. Essentially, a single website is presented in different formats depending on the device it is being accessed from. Alternately, Native Mobile Apps install some files on the device itself which can be accessed offline and access data from the web application through set of web services. As installation files are device specific, different apps need to be created for different devices operating on different operating systems.
Another approach is a Hybrid app where only a wrapper is installed on the device and all the content is called through the web services so that the user feels that he is using the app but he is actually surfing the website.
Responsive web applications are best suited when the website is mostly informational with little or no user interactions required. For e.g. if you have a business website providing information about your services and products it is recommended to go for a responsive website rather than native apps. Since the user opens the application in browser window, he is able to access all browser features as well. This approach ensures that every time a user accesses the website, he is presented with the latest online content.
In case of Native Mobile apps, content can be saved on the device itself (which can be regularly synced with web application) and allows the user to browse even when offline. It is also good for applications that require higher user interaction like geo positioning, camera integration and other device functions. An apt example would be an e-commerce store that suggests deals to the user based on their location. However, a big downside is the implementation cost as different operating systems require the application to be coded using different languages and frameworks.
While deciding between the two approaches, one must take the targeted user into account. If the audience is tech savvy and smart phones are available then native apps can be built depending on the popularity of a particular operating system. However, if previous generation phones are popular with medium to good internet connectivity, building a responsive website is a good idea. If cost is not a constraint then it is advisable to have a responsive website as well as native mobile apps to reach out to a larger population.