While desktop internet usage certainly maintains a strong presence within most of our lives, the internet as a whole has rapidly come to court mobile traffic as well. Gone are the days of shrinking a full-size website or application down onto a small screen — every company worth their weight now has a mobile-optimized, responsive website too.
Relatedly, the ubiquity of smartphones unleashed a cavalcade of commensurate native apps; the only thing that has grown faster than the adoption of smartphones is the explosion of mobile apps designed and delivered to serve the users of said phones.
Mobile web apps and native apps are two sides of the same coin. Neither is superior to the other outright; rather, each has a specific set of strengths. And, depending on the needs of your firm at this particular moment, the priority and/or proclivity for one or the other can vacillate.
Why mobile web apps are great
First and foremost, they’re far less expensive to develop than a native app. You’re less constrained by app store guidelines and less original coding is required. It’s easier to update and add features/functionality because all you’re really doing is creating additional mobile-optimized web pages and pointing the app to those urls. Another huge plus is standardization — since the app runs through a mobile browser and not an operating system, one mobile app can work on iOS and Android without any need for additional coding or development.
If you need something live now, and you’re on a shoestring budget? Web apps are a strong way to go. You can achieve much of your desired functionality with instant cross-platform usability for quite a bit less money than a native app. All that said, however, for a faster, more stable, more robust experience, native apps have a lot going for them as well.
Why native apps take the cake
Unlike a mobile web app, native apps live directly on your phone. The adoption hurdle is present, because it requires a user to actively opt in by downloading your app. However, once that hurdle is cleared, there’s green grass on that side of the fence.
First, native apps, unlike web apps, do not necessarily require an active internet connection to work. All web apps requires an active internet connection and open web browser to work. If data is scarce or slow? The web app offers you nothing. In the case of a native app, living on the phone allows for a robust user experience and functionality sans internet if need be.
That also means your web app can’t work in the background of the phone; once you close the web browser, that app is no longer active. That means you can’t send push notifications or geo-alerts, use geo-fencing, behavior tracking, or any number of background functions.
Web apps are quite a bit slower than native ones because every time you access a web app, it has to download everything all over again. If that includes images or videos of any kind, those loading times can drag. This hiccup also has the ancillary drawback of chewing up data plans and draining battery life. With a native app, much of that is stored directly on the device, meaning loading time and usage speeds are much faster while saving your data and battery.
Web apps are also limited in the external functionalities they can access. Native apps can access your camera for taking pictures or scanning QR codes, your microphone for taking dictation or voice memos, your calendar for scheduling or reminders, etc. Web apps can’t deep link across disparate apps the way native can, meaning those external protocols are beyond reach or utility for web apps.
While not as sexy or obvious as some of these other points of contention, native apps are also generally more secure. Instead of subjecting app users to the entire internet at large when requesting or accessing secure data, native apps exist in a more enclosed system. By bypassing third party apps and services, native apps can preserve data and security in a way web apps simply cannot.
Finally, if you’re able to clear the adoption bump, native apps are far more accessible from a user’s phone. Instead of having to make an active choice to seek your mobile app out, a native app lives on that smartphone owner’s home screen until the day s/he deletes it. Therefore, it only requires one step (clicking on it) to engage your brand with that person. In the case of a web app, the user has to make a conscious choice to seek out your company through a mobile browser and then go through a number of steps to get to you. So while there is a lower barrier to connection on the web than requiring a native download, if that download has happened, your brand is far better positioned for multiple seamless interactions with that consumer.
All that being said, mobile web apps are a fantastic solution to a number of problems. They’re cheap, have immediate cross-platform usability, can hit market faster, etc. They’re often a great first step to having a meaningful brand relationship with a consumer. They can also be a great solution based on where you are in the client journey: If your potential customers are at the very beginning of a client interaction with you, a mobile web app makes perfect sense — you’re trying to establish a brand relationship with that prospect and don’t want to ask too much of them (download an app, create a profile, etc.). But, if your customers are further into their brand journey with you where they’re interacting with your brand multiple times throughout the year, month or week, then having a dedicated, robust offering via a native mobile app makes a lot more sense.
For the serious companies out there, web apps are rarely if ever enough in and of themselves. A native app has a whole host of advantages in scope, reach, functionality, user experience, speed, satisfaction, etc. that mobile web apps simply can’t match long term. So while web apps might seem like a great, affordable solution, they’re often a stop-gap measure until the heavy hitter drops. One is not better than the other necessarily, they just accomplish very different things. And, they often compliment each other better than having one or the other independently.