Responsive Design vs Mobile Apps

Mobile Generation
By Martin Dower.

The “responsive design vs xxxxx” argument seems to be won and lost every other week. What are the real problems and what should (most) companies do.

Summary: If you can, build using a responsive web design – Unless you need a feature that is unique to native apps.

Only a few years ago, folks were arguing the toss between responsive design and dedicated mobile sites. Despite the close fought war or words there was only going to be one winner – Responsive Design – but enough muck was chucked around by those set against using responsive design.

If you go back a couple of years there was really only 2 mobile devices out there – we had the 4″ iPhone and the generic Android platform. As a result building apps and dedicated mobile sites was a simple case of creating a couple of new versions. It was simple.

But it was always a flawed approach and ignored the inevitable proliferation of new devices and different operating systems. Whilst you can still build device-centric applications today it very expensive and usually pointless unless your application needs, not wants, access to a specific function on the device.

Out in the wild we have 2 major version of iOS (6 and 7) with another on it’s way this year. Each of these will be able to run on iPhone 3,4,5 and iPad 1,2,3,4, Mini plus retina versions. That’s about 15 discrete versions that need to be maintained, updated and supported. Just on the Apple platform.

And then we have Android’s 5 major versions (Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice cream sandwich, Jelly Bean & KitKat). And Windows Phone (3 versions), Blackberry, Firefox, Sailfish, Symbian and Ubuntu.

Ok, some of those devices have minimal market penetration, but all of them have a browser and can run responsive sites directly out of the box. In fact, you can say with confidence that any new mobile phone in the next few years will work immediately with responsive design.

Note: Some phones are starting to appear that only use a browser. There will be no native apps on those devices.

Find a good platform. Use WordPress.

Responsive design might be the weapon of choice but that often causes huge re-development costs for existing web and digital services. If you built your digital strategy in an era before open web platforms such as WordPress you might find the move to responsive a step too far.

You could be tempted into some tactical spend on a native mobile app, or even (god forbid) a mobile-only web app. Before you make what will be a dead-end decision, consider how far down the line you might be able to get using that budget to re-develop your whole digital strategy onto a modern web platform.

You’re going to have to do this at some point in the near future, use the mobile argument as an opportunity to migrate away from your old proprietary platform and get something shiny and new like WordPress 4.0. This could and should an opportunity to have a root and branch review of all your digital services – you’ll probably find your existing services have been under pressure for a while and may not meet the needs of the business and it’s customers.

Note: We promote WordPress because we’re a WordPress Agency. There are other web platforms out there.

You still want to build a dedicated app?

The first thing you have to do is decide which platforms, the obvious place to start is Apple iOS 7 and Android KitKat – they cover the modern kit and around half of all the smartphones. And the only reason you’d embark on such an endeavour is if you needed a specific function not available via the browser or access to that feature was central to the application and direct control massively enhanced the user experience.

Most of the features on mobile phones are available via a browser, including the camera, microphone, accelerometers, orientation and GPS. The user experience is not, however, as good as native control so the decision to build an native app pretty much revolves around that question.

Does the user experience benefit enough to make the building of a native app worth it.

In most cases (99.95%) it doesn’t. You also need to be aware the a native app easily harms the user experience and also front-loads the frustration by forcing a tedious download and entering your password. Even after the app has been downloaded a staggering 5 out 6 people will not use the app more than twice.


What I find staggering is the number of people and companies who still argue the toss. Responsive (broadly) won the race back in 2010 yet there are a whole swathe of luddites who persevere down the dedication application development route. Ok, some as mobile agencies, or C# developers or just plain backed the wrong horse but please stop muddying the water for the rest of us.