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 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 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 “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.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Sat, Feb 25, 2012

Some gov't type agencies have no idea what they are actually releasing and the press release looks foolish. I have seen local/state agencies now (1 UK and 2 US) build their own "apps" and tout them like they were native apps when they are really mobile websites. They are so excited to have an "app" they just put out anything, even if the quality is poor (often it is) The time they wasted building the new "app" could have just been dedicated to converting their website to mobile with just those "app" features integrated and done in about a day.... Also many native apps still rely on network connections. So I think it is misleading to say that native apps can run when not connected to the network and that is the "big" difference. Native applications mean that it was built for that particular platform or phone OS and will integrate with the phones native features, unlike most non native apps that do not take advantage of phones menu buttons, speed, swipe, motion, gps, pic, video, and other internal mechanisms... You can bring the HTML5 web apps into the mix but like Jobs said there will still always be a difference between native and web and the user experience..

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 Rich Washington D.C.

To promote this as a webapp does webapp developers a disservice. It is well done, but it isnt a webapp, it is a mobile web site. It is content that renders effectively and with a clean GUI on mobile devices. If you could bookmark pages of the budget, create highlights from the budget, then I would consider it a web app. Don't confuse people even further by not defining this as a mobile web site.

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 OccupyIT

This is just another season of our IT discontent. Private marketing machines hype a new tech; USG gets excited and confused and proliferates a bunch of unneeded capabilities and loses track of their mission; USG gets angry for their own purchases when the next CIO finds nothing is compatible or sustainable because of the diversity; USG pats itself on the back for the insight and decides to consolidate/re-architect to a standard and blames it on industry; industry gets paid to fix everything only to be berated for implementing an old architecture that was selected by the USG. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Thu, Feb 16, 2012 fedWebGuy

If you can save the web app to your desktop and it can run while not connected to the net, then app is an appropriate term.

Thu, Feb 16, 2012

Does it make any difference from the user end? If not, then who cares?

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