Beginning in early 2014, people spent more time on the Internet using their mobile devices than desktop computers. Although we’ve seen this trend building for years, businesses have been slow to react to this profound shift in Internet usage. Luckily there are technologies that cater to both desktop and mobile devices.

Have you ever visited a website on your phone and the site is shrunk to a microscopic size? If you’re lucky, you can at least zoom and pan to get around the site although it can be quite tedious. Some sites don’t even support zooming and panning leading to an illegible and unusable site. All that effort and money spent on your website – wasted for all but the minority of users who view it on a desktop.

There are two main options for providing a better experience on mobile devices; native apps, and mobile websites.

A native mobile app is a computer program installed on a mobile device. These programs typically target specific phones and are installed through the phone’s app store - the Apple App Store and Google Play are the two most popular. Native apps are great for consumers because they are custom built for a specific product or service, and take advantage of all the bells and whistles of the device such as the camera, accelerometer, and pedometer.

Although great for users, there are disadvantages to creating a native mobile app. They are relatively expensive for businesses to create and support. They are often designed for one type of phone (ex: an Apple or Android phone), although there are hybrid techniques for targeting multiple devices. No matter how they’re built, they’re specialized programs that require specialized technical skills.

They are also highly specialized applications, much more so than may be warranted for most businesses that are simply trying to reach customers for marketing purposes. For basic needs, like providing information on the company and its offerings, a native app doesn’t offer enough value for users to download them, meaning there’s not enough return on investment for the business. But if you have a highly interactive application, especially one that distributes user generated content, then a native app will likely provide a high return on investment. As a matter of fact, there are many companies now that only provide native applications to their users while maintaining a minimal web presence.

The other popular option for competing on mobile, and one that is highly relevant to the bulk of businesses, is to provide a website that is designed for mobile devices. Early in the mobile revolution some solution providers created separate web sites that were built exclusively for mobile devices. You can usually spot these because the web site address is different for mobile devices than for viewing on desktops. The major disadvantage to this technique is that the company has to maintain and support two different websites; the mobile version and the desktop version. That’s twice the work, twice the expense, and twice the opportunity for a company to communicate different messages to its customers.

The best solution to providing a mobile web site these days comes via the concept of responsive web design. Responsive web design means that the web page changes based on the size of the device. This feature is provided thanks to a technique named “media queries” which was standardized in 2012. Media queries allow web developers to hide, show, or change any content on a web page based on the width of the device. For big devices, like a desktop, developers will show a lot of text, images, and charts. For smaller devices, like phones, developers will hide big images and other “clutter”, increase the size of the text to make it easier to read, and make buttons big enough to be easily tapped by fat fingers.

With a responsive web site you build it once and it can be viewed on any device. It provides one web site address to market, and provides your developers with one code base to maintain. It is a little more expensive to build a responsive website than to build just a desktop website, but given the shift to mobile it doesn’t make sense to try to avoid this expense. This is actually an expense that provides dividends to a business. The expense of creating a responsive web site is an expense you do not want to cut from your budget.

Do you have a web site built before the mobile revolution? There are a couple of strategies to mobilize your legacy website. One is to start over and build a new responsive web site. Obviously that can be expensive, although it also gives you an opportunity to modernize the look and feel at the same time. Another option is to inject media queries into your existing site allowing the site to become responsive to different device sizes. This can be labor intensive, but will get the job done.

For high usage applications, going native and providing a mobile website is the best of both worlds. But that’s an expense that many businesses just cannot justify. The important thing is to realize how important mobile is to customers and to provide them with what they need on the devices they prefer.