The mobile app. It’s sexy. It’s slick. Everybody wants one.

And why not? When you see the unbelievable success of games like Angry Birds raking in cash by way of millions upon millions of downloads, you’d be a fool not to tap into that market. Right? It’s the new gold rush. It’s the de facto way to make a name for yourself and promote your product in front of an enormous audience that continues to expand in size every second of the day. It’s not just that you want an app; you need an app. You need one now. RIGHT NOW!

Maybe

While it is undeniably true that mobile, in general, is catching up, and potentially overtaking the desktop at a rapid clip as a means of accessing content and information, apps may not be the right fit for you or your company as a way to tap into the trend. If we had been talking about the same topic a year or more ago, the response would have been dramatically different. But mobile web solutions and web-based applications are evolving quickly, and, thanks to the likes of HTML5, you can now create an experience that is much more fluid, integrated and “app-like” than ever before without creating an actual app.

So what’s the difference between “app” and “web” when it comes to mobile devices? Mobile web is a version of your website, or a web-based application, that exists entirely on the Internet. When you use a mobile web solution, your website is accessed through the browser on your smartphone and has been formatted to properly display and function on that browser. Apps, which is short for “application,” on the other hand, must be downloaded and installed on your phone. You use the app as standalone piece of software that then operates on its own rather than through a browser. Content can still be pulled from the Internet and into the application if desired, but apps don’t rely on the browser to function.

The benefit to a mobile web approach is that you can tailor the experience to the mobile device, creating interactivity that works like an app might, but without the need to download or install anything. A mobile web solution may just be a version of your company website formatted for a mobile device. Or it might be much more complex, offering specific functions and tools that make use of your smartphone’s features, like its built-in GPS. In many instances, mobile web solutions are more cost effective than their app counterparts because they are able to work on multiple devices without being developed again and again using different coding language for each device from the ground-up.

Mobile apps aren’t dead, though. Far from it. They can still do some things and offer certain functions that mobile web solutions haven’t been able to mimic or replace. Not yet, anyway. Apps can be, and often are, the better choice. But it’s important to identify your specific needs and consider the following points before making a decision between the two options.

Everyone is doing it

Like I said, apps are cool. They have a certain aura about them. They’ve been around for years now, well before Apple opened its App Store, thereby introducing them to a much larger audience while making them more accessible through an easy-to-use hub that includes user reviews and distinct categories for quick and simple consumption. Apple didn’t invent apps, but it made them much more popular and familiar to a wider audience.

And there’s something to be said for that. It may be worthwhile to tap into the app trend if it helps your company stay on the cutting edge in the customer’s eyes. It may also give your audience a reason to stay in-tune with what you’re saying, selling or doing simply because some people may be more likely to download a new app for repeat visits than they would be to bookmark a website on their phone. That’s something worth considering when comparing and pricing out your options.

Zappos is a great example of this. They already have an exceptionally strong name for themselves in retail and customer service, but by placing an icon on an iPhone’s homescreen, the app serves as a reminder to the customer. It acts as a friendly tap on the shoulder to tell the audience that this is what they should be doing and this is where they should be shopping. Is the app better than the website? Not necessarily, but it is front and center and calling attention to itself. Websites can be bookmarked to a home screen on some smartphones, but for many users, that’s not yet considered quite as appealing as downloading and using an app.

Diamond in the rough

While it’s true that there are so many apps on any of the available platforms that it’s sometimes hard to stand out from the crowd, it’s debatable whether it’s easier or more likely for your audience to find you in an organized store with a finite amount of competition and the entire expanse of the Internet.

The Internet, both with SEO and Facebook’s “Like” function, gives users an open gateway to discover you. The potential is limitless and can be manipulated on the fly. As an alternative, app stores and markets aren’t controlled by you, but apps are segmented out by type, easily searchable and can skyrocket to the top of their respective charts when and if they grow in popularity.

Given the two scenarios, it’s far more likely that you’ll gain traction on the web where you can wield the available tools as you need them rather than cross your fingers and hope that your audience finds you on a store, with a bit of marketing and promotion in other mediums to round out the effort. If your app catches fire, the potential for success is enormous, granted, but not every app is likely to be as wildly popular as Angry Birds.

The app approval process

When you customize your site for the mobile web, you own your site. You can create it, tweak it and tinker with it however and whenever you want. It’s yours. Completely and without question.

When you’re working with apps, things aren’t quite so simple. Apple, for example, has a review process that is at times both confusing and aggravating. If you’re working on a tight deadline, you might submit your app for review, hoping to have it approved within a few weeks. Then, months later, you might still find yourself waiting and wondering when your app will be made available to the public, if at all.

To be fair, Apple usually reviews and approves apps pretty quickly. But if you’re working toward a particular event or announcement, you may be in for some trouble if Apple demands revisions or drags its feet along the way. Google isn’t nearly so problematic because they don’t screen their apps like Apple does. That approach, unfortunately, brings about a lot of other issues.

Once your app has been approved, you may not be quite out of the woods yet. If you need to update your app to patch a flaw, add features, speed up performance or just change up some content, your app will need go through review yet again, which may bring about further delays, rejections and frustrations.

Another thing to keep in mind is that operating systems (OS’s) are updated fairly often. Those updates will sometimes cause your app to stop functioning correctly, or possibly to break entirely. That may necessitate having the developer make adjustments that will allow the app to correctly perform on the updated firmware. Mobile web solutions may need to be tweaked when browsers are updated, but, again, you have control of those updates and aren’t reliant on approval processes. Consequently, you don’t have to kowtow to the whims of a large corporate entity.

Frag. men. tation.

Fragmentation is an ugly word when it comes to mobile app and, to a lesser degree, mobile web development. Apple makes things fairly easy on developers by releasing one new phone about once a year, which contains a single mobile OS. With the iPad, Apple has introduced some fragmentation between devices, but an argument can be made that a tablet is a completely unique form factor and isn’t really quite a mobile device, instead existing somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. As such, it may not be necessary to account for a tablet when developing a mobile solution.

Google’s Android, while brilliant in most ways, runs on many different devices and different screen sizes while making use of multiple iterations of its OS. It can be extremely difficult to build out an app that “just works” for nearly all of your audience.

Mobile web solutions are more versatile than apps when it comes to fragmentation because you can design your site to be flexible enough to work on Androids, iPads and iPhones without having to worry about what fits where on the screen. When properly executed, your site can work just about anywhere, making the experience and the function universal. The developer must still account for the differences in browsers and screen sizes, but if the design is malleable and constructed properly, a mobile web solution should work fluidly on near all devices. That ultimately saves you money since you’re not developing for a variety of platforms, but are instead creating a single entity which has multiple styles that are pulled for each specific occasion.

Speed and access

Mobile apps are oftentimes faster than mobile web solutions. Although sites can be cached to speed things along, apps can bypass that necessity and handle things without tapping the Web, instead keeping its processes internal and quick. This is especially important in more graphic-intensive scenarios or when large media downloads occur at the time of the app install rather than repeatedly tapping online resources whenever the mobile user accesses the mobile site.

Additionally, apps can be used completely offline without difficulty provided they aren’t pulling data from an online source. Mobile web solutions are quickly closing the gap in this area, but things tend to weaken and crumble when connectivity unavailable. Depending on what you’re building and when your audience will need to access the features you’re providing, a mobile web solution could, conceivably, present problems. It all comes down to what you need and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Accessing the phone’s features

HTML5 allows developers to tap into quite a few features on a phone, with some limitations. For example, HTML5 can tie into the GPS and the accelerometer (to a degree), but if your app needs to link up with the camera or access Push notifications, you’re out of luck.

Twitter.com, Dictionary.com and Facebook have developed apps that make clever use of Push notifications, which you wouldn’t otherwise get with a mobile web solution. The Dictionary.com app prompts users to read the Word of the Day; the Twitter app can be configured to nudge you when you get direct messages; and Facebook can holler at you when someone posts to your wall, adds you as a friend or completes any number of other updates or changes. While you can easily access mobile web versions of each of these sites, which work quite well, some of the additional features that their app equivalents offer simply don’t carry over. In those instances, the app does more and simply makes more sense then a mobile web solution.

What do you want to do?

Pound for pound, an app will be more expensive than a mobile web solution. If you’re building out multiple iterations of an app for different smartphones, tablets and the like, you should plan to account for development time and cost that must be reproduced using different coding languages for each OS and device. That is, of course, assuming your app will be used on more than one platform.

Not surprisingly, that translates into a higher dollar amount than if a developer builds the mobile web solution once and creates suitable styling for each device. If, however, you’d like to build something that is faster, more robust or contains functionality and graphics that can’t be replicated on the web, an app is going to be the clear winner.

It all comes down to what you’re trying to do. What are you offering? How will it function? Who is your audience? Under what conditions will it be used? Once you’ve considered all of the variables, you may discover that you would benefit from both solutions. Or, one might be the clear winner while the other becomes obviously unnecessary. It’s not a simple matter of mindlessly choosing one over another, but instead determining what will work best for you and your business.