It's apps vs. mobile-enabled websites in GSA smackdown

Agencies looking to push their content onto mobile platforms are better off building mobile-enabled websites that can be accessed from any smartphone or tablet than building native apps that live only on one particular platform, Neil Bonner, a mobile specialist at the Transportation Security Administration, said recently.

Unlike native apps, mobile websites can be built quickly with relatively simple HMTL code, Bonner said. Mobile sites are basically one-size-fits-all, pared-down websites that compress content to fit a mobile screen so developers don't have to devote energy to creating separate tools for Apple, Android or BlackBerry platforms, he said, and don't have to worry about a totally new platform emerging.

Not so, countered Mike Pulsifer, a manager in the Labor Department's Office of Public Affairs. Native apps offer a richer user experience than websites by incorporating things like location-based services and functions that use a smartphone's camera and social media apps, he said.

Bonner and Pulsifier debated the relative merits of mobile apps and mobile websites at an online event sponsored by the General Services Administration's Web Manager University. The two men took extreme and adversarial positions for the sake of a good debate, organizers said, stressing the men's actual beliefs are far less uncompromising.

Government agencies have launched about 85 citizen-facing mobile platforms, a combination of native apps and mobile websites.

Among them are the MyTSA app, developed by Bonner's office, which gives users crowdsourced updates on how long it will take to pass through airport security, and the DOL Timesheet app, which helps users track their actual work hours against what they're being paid for.

Another benefit of native apps is that users don't have to rely on an Internet connection so they can pull up the app in rural areas or while riding on a train or bus, Pulsifier said. Bonner shot back that most useful native apps interact in some way with the Internet.

"If you're just playing Angry Birds, sure, you don't need a signal," he said. "But apps that are really interesting have some Web-based component. If you're playing Words With Friends like my friend Alec Baldwin, you're grabbing things [from the Web] in real time or semi-real time."

A point in favor of mobile websites, Bonner said, is that it's easier to gather data about who is using the site and where they're visiting using tools such as Google Analytics. Pulsifier responded that Google Analytics doesn't provide a very deep analysis of precisely why people are visiting a site. Similar tracking tools are available for native apps, he said, but many people turn them off for privacy reasons and government agencies often are hesitant to use them.

Another benefit of mobile apps is that administrators can push notifications out to users when something important happens, Pulsifier said.

"You don't have to wait to open your app and find out what it's been dying to tell you," he said.

Agencies developing native apps or mobile sites should focus on delivering pared-down, high-value content rather than simply delivering an agency website in mobile form, both men said.

"Not all the information on a public website is important enough for mobile Web," Pulsifier said. "When people are up and walking around they won't be interested in some dry statistics from eight years ago."