What’s the Best Way to go Mobile: Native Apps, Web Apps, or Responsive Design?

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Published on July 11, 2016 with No Comments

If you want a web property to stay relevant it has to have a mobile version. The long-foretold death of the desktop is all but here. The problem is, going mobile ramps up the difficulty and expense of maintaining a successful web site. So what’s the best way to do it?

To make your site mobile you have three options: a native app, a mobile app, and responsive design. Each option has its strengths. However, Responsive design is the best option for 80% of sites. The reason for that is simple: it’s the easiest and cheapest way to go mobile.


This is an app that a user downloads directly from the Apple Store, Google Play, or the Windows Phone Store. Native apps run directly off the device firmware.


  • Easy to Customize & Access. Nothing fits quite so comfortably on a mobile device as a native app. Also, if you want to access device functionality, like the camera for example, this option will give you the most freedom.
  • More Commercial Options. Apps are part of the Apple Store / Google Play, which makes it easy to charge for add-ons, subscriptions, or the app itself.
  • Higher Engagement. People who have had a chance to compare mobile sites to native apps say that native apps have better retention and higher engagement.


  • Very High Expense. Native apps have only one downside, but that downside is a doozy. Development costs are very high. Depending on the device type, you will have to build the app in iOS (C#), Android (Java), and Windows Phone (C#, Silverlight + the XNA framework). All three skill-sets are difficult to find, and pricey once you do. All the apps are separate codebases, so maintenance is also expensive. Unless your site is enormous or you want to create a business out of an app, the top shelf option just does not make sense.


Mobile apps are a separate site built in HTML5/javascript. To the end user the mobile site appears like the mobile branch of one big site, but in terms of code it’s a different creature.


  • Less Expensive. Mobile applications are significantly less expensive to build and maintain than a native app.
  • Growing Capability. In the past, mobile applications could not access the functionality of a device and relied on an internet connection to work, but that’s changing. Device makers are accommodating greater access to native functionality. New, “Hybrid apps” are also expanding the ability for mobile applications to operate off-line. Based on current tech trends, the future is bright for mobile apps.
  • Easy Talent. HTML5 and javascript proficiency is far more common than native mobile languages.


  • Less Power than Native, More Expense than Responsive. A mobile site is the midrange option. If you already receive a moderately high amount of mobile traffic, than by all means, get a mobile site. Otherwise, one of the other options is going to fit your needs better.


Responsive design works by detecting the device size and then serving up the appropriate design. Responsive design is also a CSS only solution, so the tech skills are the least demanding.


  • Lowest Development Cost. Getting a decent responsive design will require a decent designer. However, it is much cheaper to find a decent designer than a decent mobile developer.
  • Lowest Maintenance Cost. When you create an app or a mobile version you now have two or more sites. That means multiple sites to update, debug, and maintain. With responsive design you serve up the same site to everyone, which means only one codebase to worry about.
  • Future Proof. Responsive design is device agnostic. It doesn’t matter what size devices people are using five years from now, a proper responsive design will handle it.
  • Highest Flexibility. Responsive design only requires an update to the stylesheet, which will typically only take a few hours, if that. This allows for a ton of freedom to iterate.
  • SEO Best Practice. Google loves responsive design, and will take a kinder view towards your site if its responsive.
  • Scaling. If you build a responsive design, there’s nothing stopping you from building a mobile app around it later. Responsive design is a logical first step for mobile.


  • Less Polished. A creative and capable designer will be able to reshape the mobile  version of your site to fit comfortably on a smaller screen. Still, responsive design will not be as natural as a pure mobile alternative. This is less of an issue if you are building a site from scratch. If that’s the case, just build the mobile version first and then scale up.
  • Speed. Responsive design makes your site look right on a mobile device but does not streamline site functionality for mobile. If your site grows larger you’re going to want that mobile-first power.

Essentially, the different mobile solutions occupy a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the most power, customization, but highest expense, the native app. On the other end is responsive design, the most affordable but least powerful solution. Still, responsive design is the best of the bunch because it provides user experience on par with a mobile-only site, costs less time and money than any other option, and gives you a lot of freedom to iterate. For sites that need to stay lean and nimble, basically 80% of sites out there, that means responsive design is your best option.

Brian Case is a senior partner at Ethos Web Solutions, a web design firm that specializes in affordable, ethical, quality. Ethos Web Solutions



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