A few years ago, there was much debate around the best mobile solution for businesses: native apps or stand alone mobile sites

To summarise the argument, apps allowed more functionality (geo-location, barcode scanners etc), while mobile sites had the advantage of appealing to the casual mobile searcher, and across a range of devices. 

As iOS devices dominated the mobile web back then, an app was often the best solution, but this is no longer the case. 

Now, thanks to responsive and adaptive design, as well as HTML5, mobile sites can offer many of the same features as apps. 

So does this mean apps and stand-alone mobile sites are no longer needed? 

Have the options of AWD and RWD made stand alone mobile sites irrelevant?

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh:

Yes, given current device activity, assuming you have the resource and sufficient justification to develop new sites.

Consider carefully whether a small amount of work on your mobile site might deliver a greater amount of benefit than a rebuild now.

You might just want to wait a year and decide to rebuild your mobile site and leave the desktop site as a legacy site. It will depend on your traffic mix.

Ryan Webb, digital development director at equimedia:

We’d never rule any options out. A slightly different solution is needed for everyone.

In fact, in lots of cases we find clients hesitating because they don’t know what solution to implement, so we encourage them to just get a stand alone mobile landing page live as quickly as possible!

Also, a mix of all of these solutions can work well. We have one client who has a combination of (i) standard brochure ware pages for desktop/tablet (ii) a stand alone smartphone landing page and (iii) a fully responsive sales funnel.

This combination seems to be working well for them.

Justin Taylor, MD at Graphitas: 

In principle yes. In reality, no. For a business building from scratch, the cost and process efficiency of maintaining one code base (responsive) vs. multiple code bases (stand alone mobile site) at face value outweighs the benefits of stand alone.

However, not all businesses are in the position to build from scratch and it can be incredibly costly, not to mention time consuming, to migrate legacy platforms to a responsive code base.

My advice is always to start by defining the business goals and needs and then work out which technical solution can best deliver against the goals. If it's responsive, then evaluate the pros and cons (not just cost) to decide if the ROI justifies the investment.

It may be sensible to evolve to RWD/AWD in phases to manage the cost over time rather than in one hit. So start by making the core components of the website responsive, then build out the rest over time but this needs careful project management and coding discipline.

Thanks to AWD and RWD, are apps now becoming unnecessary?

Stuart McMillan:

For most people apps are unnecessary, a well-executed HTML5 site should cover all their needs.

More and more device native functionality is becoming available to the browser, for example the getUserMedia API, which is part of WebRTC, allows access to the smartphone camera.

Browser-based barcode scanning will be with us soon, hopefully this year.

Ryan Webb:

As websites evolve and we find new solutions for optimising them across devices it certainly seems that the need for native mobile apps is reducing.

However, as with anything like this, it depends on your objective. There are some functional things that a native app is better for (accessing the smartphone’s contacts, uploading photos, use GPS etc.) so if these are an important part of your strategy then a native app may be better.

Furthermore, if your ultimate goal is customer retention, then what better way to encourage brand loyalty than by persuading your customers to download an app to their phone that they find so useful that they engage with it every day!

Our Mobile Web Design and Development Best Practice Guide looks in detail at mobile site design and development. 

Graham Charlton

Published 11 June, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (9)

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Absolutely not responsive design has nothing in common with the packaged Apps.

They are completely two different aspects and therefore can't be compared.

Apps have an interface to the device that they are operating on one of the major differences to the mobile/responsive web which has a very limited amount there is far more to mobile app than accessing the mobile phone's camera.

Then comes the performance layer just on the effective memory management the native app will win compared to the garbage collector in the browser.

Then people will probably jump on well but you code once and it works everywhere... Well it doesn't you need to support different ways that the browser vendors implement event listeners, css3 and so on. Just an example of jQuery codebase should give you an idea how difficult it is to create an unified interface for the same thing across platforms. How many polyfills do you use in your responsive website? Loads I presume.

If you are a skilled coder you probably are able to code in any language. So multiplatform argument dies with that statement.

I think this title would be more relevant if it was worded differently whether the RWD makes the mobile dedicated site vs responsive site irrelevant. Then I probably could agree with it.

about 4 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Vic, I'm not sure about the GC argument, memory management can be poorly handled in either development paradigm, and isn't given enough consideration by either camp (although is probably better in the App world).

As for functionality and the interface, yes, there are differences. However, if one were to look at the majority of companies who read and benefit from Econsultancy, the functionality they might wish to offer to their users is well within the reach of a browser based experience.

When it comes to getting the job done, and being able to find people to build these solutions there are some practical benefits to being browser based. For the vast majority of companies, browser based solutions do render apps irrelevant. The functionality is *good enough* and it's a lot easier to get people to a website than it is to an app.

about 4 years ago


Neil Charlton

I agree with Vic and Stuart, as they're discussing the same subject from totally different angles. We specialise in real RWD as opposed to Adaptive Design, which is too rigid and not cost effective at all.

We find many clients would rather have a proper 'website' that works on all devices than rely on 2 or 3 different grids/frames to fit different platforms.

The article does miss a big point; namely the predicted exponential growth of 'Internet of Things', which will more than likely require Apps for Smartphones and other devices to talk to each other. This is where a website just won't cut it.

So, it's a bit premature to predict the 'demise' of Apps. If anything they will become much more focused in their use and targeted at specific platform niches.


about 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Neil - I wasn't necessarily predicting the demise of apps, just that the debate over apps v mobile sites is now less relevant.

I should perhaps have focused this in on mobile commerce, as the rush for retailers to go mobile a couple of years ago prompted the debate in question i.e. was it better to have an app with better functionality or to have a stand alone mobile site which would have cross-device appeal.

Now, I would posit that RWD or AWD would be the best approach to mobile commerce, certainly as a first option. Once this is in place, apps still have a role to play.

Anyway, as with most things, the answer is more nuanced, and the best approach is essentially what works within whatever budget or tech restraints you have to deal with.

about 4 years ago



Personally I prefer dedicated apps if I need to buy something because they deliver concentrated user experience/journey orientated on one thing: making you part with your money in the most efficient and pleasurable way.

Rather than typing urls logging in to your account (trying to remember your loging details, passwords) most of the retail apps I use remember all these details for me and in literally couple of steps I am able to buy things and get them delivered to one of many of my preferred addresses without filling out forms, them not validating if I made a mistake and so on.

Granted well made RWD can deliver the similar experience but definitely wont be as fast and as efficient as a dedicated mobile app.

Theres another layer to it - security - while mobile browser is as any other browser susceptible to phishing, url spoofing etc. Dedicated app is not (as long as you use the official one of course).

RWD is good but I can't see it causing a demise of dedicated, packaged apps anytime soon.

@Stuart ok maybe it's easier to get people onto the website than on an app I don't know what is the percentage of people using apps to websites on mobiles I still prefer for example ebay, amazon mobile app than their mobile web experience because I can buy things I want way faster than I would do on the web browser either on mobile or desktop.

about 4 years ago



I guess it's always a matter of using a right tool (technology in this case) for the job.

If RWD is the right tool for you go with RWD if its AWD go with AWD if it's a dedicated mobile site or packaged app go with either one.

RWD will not always work especially if you are dealing with existing code base, then the AWD or dedicated mobile site comes into play but if you can't do either well target the platforms with mobile app.

about 4 years ago


Drupal company

Responsive design and Mobile apps are totally different things. Some companies require both of them, a responsive design as a presentation of their work and a mobile app as a product they sell.
Other companies, require only responsive design website.

So, these 2 options can be combined, but not replaced one by another.

about 4 years ago

Stewart Longhurst

Stewart Longhurst, Director + Interim Head of Digital at Association of Project Management (APM)Enterprise

For me, the immediacy of response from an app beats a mobile web experience but it does depend on what the app is for.

If the app would merely be a packaged version of a company's website then don't build it.

But if you want to create an interactive, responsive (in the literal sense!) and useful user experience - go for a native app.

For example, the new Dulux Visualizer app which uses advanced Augmented Reality technology to "paint" your room's walls in real time just couldn't be done in a browser.

about 4 years ago


Nick Charles, Business Development Consultant at Avon Forth Media Ltd

Graham, I think that this should have been made clear that you are talking specifically about commerce rather than the more general marketplace.

Native Apps which help businesses run their tasks and support sales teams etc have real intrinsic value over a responsive site. And of course games etc that don't rely on a internet connection have their own unique place in the app world.

I would agree that a dedicated mobile site is a particularly weak solution in comparison to responsive design. Good responsive design allows you to push specific content to a user depending upon the device, so really mobile sites are now obsolete.

about 4 years ago

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