Mobile app or mobile website -- does it make any difference?

Federal agencies have been debating the value of mobile applications vs. mobile websites in recent months. The General Services Administration sponsored a forum on that topic in December to help agencies choose their preferred platform for mobile—website or native application.

But it looks like the U.S. Government Printing Office has added a new twist to the ongoing discussion. Or maybe the terminology just needs a refresh.

The GPO announced on Feb. 14 that it has just launched the first “mobile Web application” for the U.S. budget.

It was a hugely popular debut that got a lot of attention, with 53,000 visitors to the m.GPO.gov/budget website within 24 hours, the GPO said. That was a lot more popular than its House and Senate mobile website, which had 50,000 hits in three months.

The new service appears to be a mobile website, but the GPO insists on calling it a mobile application.

“It is an app,” Gary Somerset, a spokesman for the GPO, wrote in an emailed message. “It is a mobile web app built using HTML5 and other web technologies. Many other government agencies and private organizations are developing apps in a similar way.”

But according to the GSA’s debate in December, federal agencies developing customer-facing mobile applications generally choose either a native mobile application, or a mobile website.

A mobile website is a website designed for use with a mobile device; the format is generally simplified and streamlined in comparison to a typical agency website. Users must be connected to the Internet to access the mobile website.

A mobile native application is an application developed specifically for an iPhone, iPad or Android device that allows the user to access information, play a game or perform other functions. It can be used with or without a connection to the Internet.

“We are excited to have some smart people to help us answer the Number One question that we get in the mobile management program office, which is: What should we do? Should we make a mobile website, or should we make a mobile app?” Gwynne Kostin, director of mobile for the GSA’s Office of Citizen Engagement and Innovative Technologies, said in the Dec. 8 webinar. It was co-sponsored by Web Managers University, which is a group of federal Web managers.

Asked to comment on the GPO mobile website, Kostin said it is “appy” because it offers a "specific function, viewing (the) FY13 budget.” At the same time, since the m.gpo.gov/budget is a website, it is available to all types of devices and smart phones, she added.

Does it even matter if mobile websites, such as the GPO’s, now call themselves mobile applications as well? Perhaps not, but it might blur some of the issues.

Tom Suder, president of MobileGov solutions company and also co-chair of an industry group on mobility, said there already is some confusion in the industry about the terminology and about what the advantages and disadvantages are of native mobile applications vs. mobile websites, he added.

He considers the GPO’s Budget a mobile website. “It is a good first start,” Suder said. If it were a native application, it could have additional features added to it, such as more charts and graphs, and would be accessible even if the user is not connected to the Web.

In any case, the GSA may be adding to the terminology muddying itself. The USA.gov “Mobile Apps” gallery contains an array of nearly 100 “apps,” of which probably about half are mobile websites.





About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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