Every once in a while a client tells me they need a mobile app. The client usually has a small-to-mid-sized business like residential heating and cooling or plumbing. I ask the client…

What do you want your mobile app to do?

…and I wait a couple of seconds before suggesting: Help customers contact you? Give customers a way to track their service requests? Help get you new customers?

“Yes, that’s it, exactly!” the client replies.

I tell the client that mobile apps start at $10k; then discuss how we can easily make their website more mobile-friendly.

Let’s look at mobile apps versus mobile websites.

Mobile Apps

Better Bring Your Wallet

Mobile app development tends to start at $10k. If you find someone who says they will do it for less, well, let the buyer beware!

Better Be Prepared to Wait…and Keep Bringing Your Wallet

A version of your mobile app must be developed for every mobile OS you want your app to run on. Unless your business caters specifically to and only to one faction in the mobile OS world, this means that at a minimum, you should have versions for Android and iOS (iPhone). If you really want to appeal to a wide base, you will need to consider Windows, Blackberry, Firefox OS, Sailfish OS, Tizen, and Ubuntu Touch, as well.

Don’t Expect One and Done

It is likely that every OS update will require your mobile app to also be updated. On the other hand, you don’t want to upset people who use older devices or those who don’t jump to upgrade. This means a lot of version management…and a lot of time…and money.

If You Build It, They May Stock It

There is no guarantee that your app will be accepted/approved by the various mobile app stores. You could spend $30K on a mobile app only to have the Apple Store refuse to carry it.

Tech Support

If you build it, and they (the app stores) stock it, and people download it, you’d better be ready to provide some sort of tech support.  This means, yes, you got it…more time and money.

Mobile Websites

Mobile websites are websites that look good and function well on small screens/mobile devices. There are various ways to achieve this. You can have a fully responsive site (elements of your site shift and change size depending on the width of your view screen). You can have a mobile version of your website. You can have something in between. You can even use a service (though I don’t recommend this) that provides a mobile version of your site (for a monthly fee), that you have very little control over. Many popular CMSs (like WordPress) have numerous mobile-ready themes available.

Keep Some of Your Money

While there may be an additional cost up front to make sure your website is mobile-friendly, it shouldn’t be anywhere near the cost of a mobile app.  If you have a very large and complex site, or a site that is made up of fully independent pages, or a site that uses in-line styling, you could be looking at a higher cost, but it still should be significantly less than an mobile app.

Will Everybody Be Able to Use It?

As long as your website is cross-browser compatible, you shouldn’t have any problems. Designing for various browsers can be painful (thanks to a few browsers…eh-hem…IE and Safari…), but it’s far, far less work than developing for different operating systems.

How Will People Find My Site?

In part, that is up to you (and your marketing consultant!). Some people will manually type your URL into their mobile browsers. Some will find you in search engines. Some may find links to your site from other sites. Some may bookmark you.

Is There Ever a Point to Having an App?

Why, yes, of course!  If you have a compelling reason for having an app or an idea for a unique app, the budget (time and money) for the development and maintenance of it, and a good business plan, go for it.  You may be sitting on a gold mine.