Web App vs. Native App: The Agony of Choice

The Agony of Choice

The app concept is profound, its intended content is of a steady-state. Now it is all about the mobile marketing. Even before approaching the first phase of app development, one important technical question comes up: Which approach is the better choice for my product? Web app or native app? First off:  An „one-size-fits-all“-solution does not exist. And thus, the second insight follows at once: Deciding for one kind or another depends on several factors such as target group, purpose, or budget. And: To make the right choice is not as hard as it seems - As long as the approaches including their strengths and weaknesses have been recognized and understood. 

Web App – The Website with App-Feeling

To put it simply, web apps are applications programmed with web-technologies such as HTML5, JavaScript, or CSS. As internet-enabled apps, they are accessible via the device’s web browser and thus can be used without installation. This cross-platform basic technique offers the advantage that web apps, programmed once, work on all kinds of operating systems and mobile platforms (e.g. iOS, Android, Windows). Since it is a mere web application, development costs and time exposure can be cut down measurably. However, the embedding of the app into the web browser also leads to a limited access to APIs and simultaneously to a restricted use of the device’s native features . However this circumstance can be handled by using third-party suppliers such as PhoneGap or Adobe Flex. These so called „frameworks“ provide a technical structure within an application can be set up. Thus, web apps have the ability to cover a variety of functionalities, and also to access components such as GPS, camera, or gyroscope – exactly like a native app. Also data cannot only be stored in the web browser but also in the local memory. However, web apps still fall a little behind when it comes to performance. The reason: In comparison to native apps, they are not programmed in the system language of the respective platform and thus do not have an direct access to the operating system and system resources.

Native App – The "real" App with full Access

In comparison to web apps, native apps are especially programmed for one particular operating system which only function on the certain software-platform. Via a distribution network such as the Apple iTunes store, they can be installed on the terminal device and be retrieved via an icon on the homescreen. Native apps have the advantage that they have access to all APIs and thus can efficiently and completely use all hardware functions such as bluetooth or push notifications. Furthermore, for the user familiar surficial elements can be used so that the app dovetails better within the overall image of the particular operating system. Because native apps, as fast installed programmes, do not depend on a permament internet connection, they convince with a better performance and offline functionality. This optimated adjustment to each operating system however, can also be interpreted as a disadvantage. It is difficult to adapt a native app to other systems and thus has mostly to be edited completely in the coding language of the particular operating system. But not only the development also the maintenance is complex. Native apps depend on app stores as a distribution platform. Instead of simply uploading updates and supplements on the server, these changes must undergo a certification process and need to be approved of the app store, before they can be installed by the users. Exceptions are apps for android.

Conclusion

To sum it up, web and native apps can hardly be distinguished by their users. Well executed, the look & feel of both approaches are equally authentic. Nevertheless, web and native apps have their strengths and weaknesses. The decision for one approach or another has to be weighted individually. Native apps should be prefered when complex user interfaces or high performance are necessary and when the use of special hardware functions shall be enabled. The integration of, for example 3D animations or videogames, mostly require a native app. If these points are less relevant, the development of a cross-platform web app is recommended. They convince with faster development time, less development costs, and the possibility of more frequent and faster updates.