When we made our own mobile website, we commented that many iPhone apps would probably be better served as mobile websites. We also discussed that to a large extent, the dominance of mobile apps vs mobile websites seems to reflect a decision by designers more so than any fundamental failing of mobile websites as a medium. Google has made similar statements about focusing on webapps rather than OS-specific mobile apps to get improved compatibility and to speed up the update cycle (though they've recently gone against this focus by releasing more features and apps for iOS).
I wanted to bring this discussion back up because I recently ran across two examples that really drive home how little difference there is between many mobile apps (such as those made for iOS devices) and mobile websites. These examples highlight both how little of a difference there is between many mobile apps and websites, but also some of the artificial barriers to acceptance of mobile webapps that clearly still exist.
We've talked about the blogging platform Tumblr in the past as a hybrid of Twitter-style microblogging and traditional blogging (read our full blog review roundup here). I've recently started using Tumblr for a couple of things, and in the process I downloaded the iOS Tumblr app for my iPhone. After using it for a bit, I was pretty surprised to discover that it was basically just a wrapper around the full Tumblr website. There are some specific utilities for adding content directly from the phone, but to edit or view existing posts, everything is done through a dedicated browser inside the application.
On the one hand, this technique is kind of a clever way to convert an existing web application into an iPhone app that people can install and use in a way they are more accustomed to (through the app store). On the other hand, this really just highlights how little difference there may be between a mobile app and a mobile website.
In a similar vein, AppMakr (h/t Lifehacker) is a web application that lets you create your own iOS mobile app using content from your website or RSS feed. AppMakr lets you add additional functionality like push notifications and advertising, but for the most part it really just generates a dedicated RSS reader that only shows your content. Again, while AppMakr represents an easy way to generate a mobile app from an existing website, it also highlights how small the differences between the two often are.
The switch is coming
Anyway, I don't think it's anything new that a lot of the functionality of mobile applications can be duplicated by web applications. Furthermore, those web applications have nice benefits to both developers and consumers by providing increased compatibility across devices and faster update releases. What was striking to me is how many applications literally just wrap around existing websites (not just the content, but the actual site itself). Such apps point to a clear advantage in the market for mobile apps even in the absence of functional differences. As such, if you're thinking about designing a mobile app or mobile website, I think it's worth considering whether you can realistically do both in one shot.