Mobile or web application - the big debate

When starting out, founders often have a strong idea about what channel their new venture should use. The two most popular ones are mobile applications and web applications. We know that these technologies have been used for a few years, but it is worth it to explore what the technological limitations, human behaviour and product-channel fit will be for the startup.  

If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

With well-established technology in both spheres, software developers are able to build cross-platform mobile and web applications. Yet, with the resource restrictions (financial, time and people) on startups, it becomes exceptionally important to minimise wastage – and researching the pros and cons of all channels before making the final decision.

All things considered

I want to make fair mention that you need to consider each platform, different infrastructure and marketing channels for the platforms. For example, you need to look at:

  • Infrastructure costs
  • Customer acquisition models
  • Market segmentation and technological compatibility
  • The financial impact on the startup or small business
I am of the opinion that you should have empirical proof from your customers before you code a feature. The same is true for choosing a platform. Don’t just choose a platform on a feature or system without testing the outcome!

Mobile or web application: A channel architectural overview

The cross-platform technology for converting a single code set for use on the web, mobile phones and tablets is not as mature as for example the cross-browser support that JQuery and Bootstrap offer all web browsers. There are a few coding frameworks that offer a general one-size-fits-all solution but can create unforeseen technological stonewalls and issues. These may range from scrolling issues to unsupported features. 

Generally, the server allows shared business logic between a mobile app and a website. The browser and mobile app tend to be a lightweight ‘shell’ with very little business logic. This allows for server code reuse and decreases platform specific issues and bugs.   

Choosing a mobile app

When deciding on a mobile application as your chosen channel, cost and business niche are the two biggest considerations.

Certain business models need to have an app available on-the-go. For example, it makes sense for a pick-up and delivery solution, such as Uber, to be on a mobile phone – you need access to it wherever you are.  In another case, it would be convenient to have a mobile app, but not essential to the business model. Examples include an informational service (such as an article repository with only a few articles) and services that are used less often (such as motor vehicle registration).

It is not unheard of that people delete an app if the internet connection is lost in the app, a UI alignment issue is not to their liking or the app experience is not exactly what they are looking for. 

Mobile app users are not forgiving.

Considerations for mobile apps

Mobile apps, though perceived as the holy grail, can sometimes sink a startup The following factors need to be considered:

  • Users on the store rate your app and leave reviews – customer service is vital in resolving issues. Even though cross platform technology allows catering to many phones and tablets, it is impossible to cater for everything. 
  • There might be a substantial amount of red tape to cross before you launch your app. For example, legal paperwork and login details would need to be provided and certain approvals need to be handled. 
  • You will set yourself at the mercy of the store. If they update their terms of service, your business model might be affected.

A mobile app also has a financial impact on your business:

  • Mobile app development tends to be more expensive to code. It can also become very complex really fast.
  • All payments need to be handled by the store. The standard charge is around 30% of gross payment
  • Annual fees payable to the stores – some stores have a once off fee, whereas others have an annual subscription fee to host your mobile apps
  • Server costs and infrastructure – in many cases, only half of the business logic is on the mobile app. The other half is on a web server that the mobile app connects to.  

In my personal experience, the only features I have seen that make a mobile app different from a web application is push notifications. Though Android does allow for web push notifications,  iOS doesn’t allow for this at the moment. 

Choosing a web application

Web applications are more mature in technology than mobile apps. With code libraries like bootstrap and jQuery and Angular coders can create cross-platform single page applications or progressive web apps for online and offline use. 

Though web apps are versatile and easy to deploy, the issue of trust can be difficult to overcome. There is nobody that can verify the legitimacy of a website. 

Websites are also easily forgotten and not bookmarked. Retargeting and customer communications are vital in turning them into returning customers. In some cases, it makes sense to use web push notifications, but might be seen as spam by some. 

Considerations for a mobile app

Consider the following before choosing to build a web application:

  • Would you need to integrate a payment gateway? What will the cost be?
  • Do you need to send communications such as email and SMSs for awareness?
  • Which technology stack do you want to use? The .NET Framework, MEAN- or LAMP stack? 
  • How much should be doable offline? Is this a fully online solution?
Concerning the financial impact, the following should be considered:
  •  Infrastructure costs
    • Web application hosting, including database costs
    • Annual domain renewal and SSL certificates
    • Third party costs for security and validation


I realise that this article is not nearly extensive enough for all the articles available on the internet. 

For the survival of any business or startup, we need to focus on what is important and avoid wasting resources (money, time or energy). 

Though mobile apps are the go-to solution for may startups, we need to count the cost and confirm if this will serve the end goal and purpose of our proposed solution. The same can be said for web applications. Mobile applications will need to withstand the ratings, cost and fulfil the need of the user’s experience to avoid being deleted quickly.

Valid proof is needed that your product will fit the channel – test your assumptions with your customers.

Enjoy your business.


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