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Which One Should You Build? A Mobile Website or an Expensive App?

December 2012

By Sari Wakefield, Manager, Digital Communications, AACSB International

If you have ever engaged in an RFP process related to app development, you know that a complex app can be expensive. For nonprofits and institutions of higher education, the price tag can be as much as your entire budget (60,000 USD minimum and well over 100,000 USD for a custom platform).

Here are a few things to understand as you explore developing an app:

• Apps must be developed for a variety of operating systems (Apple iOS, Android, and Windows Mobile for example). The development is unique for each system, meaning an app has to be custom built to function properly on each platform. It is possible to develop an app for one operating system, which can result in a lower initial outlay; however, this can limit your overall audience reach.

• Apps take considerable amounts of dynamic content to automate the way they function. For instance, if an app's primary purpose is to communicate, it will need a data source to pull from. If your organization does not have an IT infrastructure that will support an app's needs, it is likely that more building will have to occur—whether this is from the app or network side. This can become very expensive.

• After development, an app is typically handed over to the end user. For instance, once the project is complete, you own the code. This can be good and bad. The good part is you own the actual intellectual property. The bad part is you need someone on your staff that can maintain the app or appropriate funds to outsource updates and additions to your existing program.

Keeping the points above in mind, there are three basic questions you should ask yourself. Will our audiences/stakeholders actually use the app? How can we (or will we be able to) recover our initial outlay for the app? And, long-term, how much will it cost us to maintain or upgrade the app?

Now, there are many benefits of having an app. For example, an app can considerably help business schools with recruiting, alumni relations, event management, and overall communications. The same is true for a nonprofit organization. For instance, an app can enhance communications, publications, and member engagement opportunities. Additionally, mobile apps can integrate specific phone features together to create a more interactive environment. However, after doing a cost-benefit analysis, your business school or nonprofit organization may come to the conclusion that an app is an expensive new technology with little known real return. So what do you do? Well, one option that is gaining popularity is to create a mobile website that behaves similar to an app.

Your mobile website, or what some technology professionals like to call your "app subsitute," does not have to be a large, elaborate website with hundreds of pages. Think of an app subsitute as an aspect of your primary website that you know could benefit mobile users. For instance, a mobile website that provides a campus tour with video, Google maps of your campus layout, contact information, nearby restaurants and attractions, and other resources could help students when they visit your school for the first time. With the new developments surrounding HTML5, a mobile website such as this can be built and designed to look just like an app, for probably half the cost.

As you begin to further explore building a mobile website that mimics a custom app, be sure to examine your overall web properties and their functionality on mobile devices. Or, at least realize you have work to do in that area to move toward a mobile friendly web atmosphere. It is speculated that mobile devices will become the new median to access the internet in the future. For instance, two years after Apple shipped the first iPad, it sold 67 million of the one-of-a-kind tablet. As the current CEO of Apple puts it, "it took us 24 years to sell that many Macs, 5 years for that many iPods, and over 3 years for that many iPhones."1 All of which follows trend predictions for 2013, where it is said that "more people will use mobile phones than PCs to get online." 2


1. Jackson, Eric. (2012). Here's Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next 5 Years. Forbes.

2. Gartner. (2010). Gartner Highlights Key Predictions for IT Organizations and Users in 2010 and Beyond.

Related Resources

Conduit Mobile provides a standardized app development platform to develop a simple app for multiple platforms. There is a free and subscription version of the software.

Mobile Site or Mobile App: Which Should You Build First? is a helpful article which includes a development flowchart infograhic.

Google Research: No Mobile Site = Lost Customers from Forbes discusses profit implications of lacking mobile technology.

The 5 Biggest Ways Students Actually Want to Use Technology provides a helpful infographic for visualizing how undergraduate students use technology.