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Updated Oct 27, 2023

What Is the Difference Between an App and a Mobile Website?

Get to know the difference between an app and a mobile website, and find what's right for your business.

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Mona Bushnell, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Let’s say you use apps every day and you know that lots of businesses have their own. You might still be wondering, though, “What makes an app an app?” After all, it may not be easy to know what differentiates an app from a mobile website.

It’s important to understand the difference between an app and a mobile website because they do have a lot of crossover, but they also have different strengths and weaknesses. To stay current and promote your business online, you need to know what’s available to you.

If you own a small business and feel a little lost in the world of apps, software and mobile websites, keep reading – this guide is for you.

What is an app?

“App” is an abbreviated term for “software application,” and one of its defining features is that it must be downloaded on a device for users to access it. Apps are built primarily for use on mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. Many software companies make app versions of their products so users can access their software’s functionality on mobile devices.

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What is the difference between a mobile app and a website?

A mobile website is accessible via your device’s web browser. The layout and dimensions of these websites automatically adjust to fit your smart phone’s screen. You can type this same URL into your laptop or desktop web browser to see the identical visuals magnified to fit a computer screen. 

In comparison, apps download directly to your mobile device. While downloadable programs for laptops and desktops are available – and were present long before mobile devices existed – you won’t see these called apps. More often, downloadable desktop programs are referred to as software platforms or desktop applications.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Whereas you access a website through a URL you enter into a web browser, you download an app directly onto your mobile device.

Why are apps important?

Before smartphones and tablets were commonplace, websites were created to display on laptop and desktop computers. The designs of such websites were unresponsive, which means they did not naturally scale to different screen sizes and were difficult to view and use on smaller screens. This was not problematic at first, because no one was trying to view websites on smartphones or tablets. Once mobile devices became popular, though, the disadvantages of these website designs became clear. 

Then, mobile websites emerged, and many SMBs with existing websites created mobile websites so users could easily view them on the go and use them with touchscreen devices, sans mouse.

For some time, apps, websites and mobile websites all existed in separate buckets, but now they are becoming the norm and the lines are blurring. 

What are the advantages of developing a business app?

There are several advantages to developing an app for your business. First, apps allow businesses (assuming the app user agrees) to send out push and/or in-app notifications. The ability to reach a customer base that is already aware of your brand and interested in it (otherwise, they wouldn’t have downloaded the app in the first place) is tremendously valuable. Note that many users opt out of notifications, however. 

Another benefit of apps is the ability to use them offline. While most app functions, like accessing maps and making in-app purchases or calls, work online only, the basic information in the app (such as store location, hours, menus and products) can be accessible even without service. 

How do I build an app?

There are three main routes you can take to build an app for your business. If you want to build your app in-house, you’ll need a team of mobile app developers at your disposal. Most small businesses don’t have that, which leaves the other two routes: hiring an outside developer or using app creation software.

Hiring an app developer

Hiring an app developer is just like hiring a graphic designer, patent lawyer or any other professional service. There are companies that specialize in creating apps for small businesses, and there are individual developers who work as freelancers or contractors.

While the outside-hire route is more expensive than app creation software, it gives you far more freedom to create an app that’s truly customized and unique. If you have specific functionality or security and compliance needs, an app developer is probably the right option for you. If your budget is tiny and your needs are basic, try app creation software instead.

Using app creation software

There are lots of mobile app development products out there, offering a range of options in process and quality. Some app development tools require only basic skills to use; these are usually referred to as “drag and drop.” Other app creation software requires you to have some development and programming skills to complete the customization process. 

Generally, the drag-and-drop app makers are cheaper and easy to use but not the most customizable. They tend to be template-based and somewhat limited in scope, but they are a great option for basic app creation, especially for small businesses.  

App creation software can be a great choice for developing your own business app if you lack technical expertise or a big budget. However, if the limited scope of app creation software seems frustrating, hiring an app developer can be well worth the spend.

Are there downsides to creating a custom business app?

Creating, publishing, publicizing and maintaining apps can be more time-consuming than managing a mobile website. First, if you want to reach people who use Apple and Android products, you’ll have to submit your app for approval in both the Apple App Store and Google Play. The guidelines for acceptance into app stores often change, and you will have to make sure your app stays in compliance with the rules. Additionally, most businesses require a website as well as an app, so if you go the app route (unless you plan to forgo websites altogether, which is inadvisable), you’ll probably also need to create a website.

Another obstacle you may face after creating a business app is getting people to find and use it. This may not be an issue if you own a well-established business and have a marketing plan in place to tell customers about your app, or your app offers some valuable functionality to users.

Should I build a responsive website instead of an app?

Both apps and websites are simple to create, but for SMBs that are not tech or app-specific companies, a responsive website is the best option. Apps and responsive websites (also called mobile websites) have many of the same options, such as one-click calling, social sharing, e-commerce and click-to-map navigation. 

However, phone space is limited and apps require a download, while responsive websites do not. Most customers of local businesses search for information in a regular browser, and a responsive web design will allow them to connect with your business from anywhere, without additional marketing to point them to your app. 

Responsive websites are also easier to maintain than apps. When you need to update a piece of information, all you have to do is change it once in the responsive website editor, and it will automatically make the changes across all device types, regardless of the operating system.

To app or not to app

That is the question – and the right answer depends on your business. If your company doesn’t sell directly to customers or offer some sort of browser-based platform, you can likely skip an app. You will, though, likely benefit from creating an app if you run a tech company or offer downloadable or browser-based software. Customers often look for these companies and platforms to offer mobile apps, so creating one can be key to effective customer retention and acquisition.

Max Freedman contributed to this article.

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Mona Bushnell, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Mona Bushnell advises aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners on what it takes to operate a business on a day-to-day basis. Bushnell has firsthand experience as an IT technician, software administrator and scheduling manager, which are all critical roles in an increasingly digital business world. Based on her nearly 20 years in the trenches, she produces learning materials on a range of business topics. Bushnell, who has collaborated with a variety of independently owned boutique businesses to increase their visibility and profit, is also known for covering business trends and events, testing emerging technology (both software and hardware) and has even teamed up with CEOs on communications needs. Her guidance can be found in leading business publications like Forbes and Investopedia.
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