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Mobile apps: native vs. web apps - what are the pros and cons?

Rapid advances in HTML5, the new more mobile friendly version of the Web language, and the hard work by the standards body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create standard interfaces across mobile devices mean that Web apps can – or will be able to – do many of the things that native apps can do.

Pawel Piejko - 08 Sep 2010
12 min read

Rapid advances in HTML5, the new more mobile friendly version of the Web language, and the hard work by the standards body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create standard interfaces across mobile devices mean that Web apps can – or will be able to – do many of the things that native apps can do.

Early this year GIA released a pioneering research paper entitled Native or Web Application? that surveyed businesses that had created both Web apps and mobile apps. Who better to guide us through the pros and cons of each platform than the author of that report, Lie Luo?

Q&A with Lie Luo, head of telecom, technology and media practice at Global Intelligence Alliance (GIA)

1) What is a mobile application? And what is the difference between a native and a Web app?

A mobile application is software written for mobile devices that performs a specific task, such as a game, calendar, music player, etc.

GIA defines a native app as one that is specifically designed to run on a device’s operating system and machine firmware, and typically needs to be adapted for different devices. A Web app, or browser application, is one in which all or some parts of the software are downloaded from the Web each time it is run. It can usually be accessed from all Web-capable mobile devices.

2) What is the technical difference between the two?

For instance, a native application developed for the iPhone will need to run on its proprietary iOS platform, or on Android, and so forth. A Web app, however, is typically coded in a browser-rendered language such as HTML combined with JavaScript.

One interesting point to note is that while architectural differences will likely remain between a native and Web application for some time, the user experiences provided by both interfaces are increasingly blurred, as most native apps utilize real-time Web connectivity and Web apps provide offline modes that can be accessed without network connectivity. As a result, some of these apps are now referred to as hybrid apps.

3) What came first for mobile phone – the native app or Web app?

Definitely the native app. Recall that preinstalled programs (i.e. apps) such as address book, calendar and calculator appeared on the mobile phone much before the availability of Web connectivity. The most memorable example was when Nokia implemented the classic arcade game of Snake in 1998, which became a massive hit around the world.

4) What was it about the smartphone that changed everything?

I try to avoid the term ‘smartphone’, since it can mean different things to different people. However, in terms of mobile apps, the single most significant event that changed the whole industry was when Apple introduced the App Store in 2008 shortly after it opened up the iOS software development kit (SDK) to third-party developers. The iPhone’s superior user interface and integrated billing via iTunes led to an explosion in downloads over its platform, and permanently transitioned the gravity of mobile app distribution away from the ‘walled gardens’ of mobile carriers to the app-store environments of handset manufacturers.

Another answer to your question is that the modern smartphone is increasingly behaving and is perceived as being like a Swiss Army knife, i.e. it’s become a general platform for running more specific third-party apps and tools. Just a few years ago mobile phones were still sold as predefined packages of usability and features, where manufacturers largely differentiated their offerings on form factor alone.

5) When did third-party developers really start getting interested in a) the native app; b) Web app? What were their motives? How have these motives evolved?

For native apps, the advent of the Apple App Store was the game changer. For mobile Web apps, however, notable developer interest emerged only in the last year or so after Google’s successful implementation of HTML5-based apps. Naturally mobile Web sites had existed long before that, e.g. WAP portals, but GIA does not count them as a Web app from a user-experience point of view.

In terms of motives, if you ask most native application developers why they choose to develop for a native OS they are most likely to say it is because of the superior user interface and commercial opportunities offered by e.g. the iPhone App Store. However, more and more developers and publishers are beginning to evaluate the Web interface due to its greater ability to enlarge audience reach and conduct version updates more quickly.

6) What is the market share today between native v Web v both? How is this expected change over the next five years?

Unofficial statistics from different sources suggest that there should be around 400,000 active native apps among various vendor and operator store fronts. Reliable estimates for the total number of mobile Web apps, however, are harder to come by. However, many believe it is much lower: for instance a mere 4,880 apps are listed on Apple’s Web App Store to date.

Our mobile publisher study Native or Web Application? confirms that sentiment, as 44 percent of respondents only offer a native application, as compared to 22 percent that offer a Web application, or 35 percent that offer both. However, when we asked them about future plans, the percentage of those offering a Web app or both remained the same, while many of those with native app alone said their app strategy choice remains to be seen and may change over time.

7) If Web apps have an increasingly significant market share, why have most people never heard of a Web app? Why are there so few app stores and directories focused on Web apps?

I think Web apps are less known largely due to a relative lack of commercial interest from vendors in promoting their usage. For instance, handset manufacturers increasingly compete on the popularity of their operating systems based on the number and variety of native apps specifically available to their devices. In addition, manufacturers typically also take a 30 percent cut from every native app sold through their app stores.

In contrast, Web apps are typically designed to be accessible across different device platforms and distributed typically free of charge. The content delivered through Web apps, however, can of course be billed independently e.g. by subscription.

8) What do native apps do better than Web apps? How long will this remain the case?

When we asked publishers that offer both application interfaces to compare the two, twice as many publishers saw higher user adoption, usage volume and user engagement (i.e. duration of usage per session) over native apps. In particular 30 percent of these publishers actually saw over 100 percent higher usage volume and engagement on native apps as compared to Web apps. Our study also found that native apps deliver a higher click-through rate (CTR) among the ad-serving publishers, although experiences can vary by company and content category.

While we do expect native apps to maintain their lead in user adoption and engagement in the near future, it is important to recognize the large variances in publishers’ experiences and, in many cases, the difference in adoption is driven by the gap in user friendliness between the same company’s native and Web app interfaces. Many developers argue that the relatively poor user experience offered by currently available Web apps are due to a lack of access to native device features such as GPS, camera, calendar and accelerometer, but that is soon to change.

9) What do Web apps do better than native apps? How long will this remain the case?

Currently, Web apps’ advantages primarily lie with application developers and publishers. Direct control over the application’s distribution and cost advantages are usually the main reasons for launching a Web application. For instance, over half of our respondents state that Web apps are both cheaper and faster to develop and maintain, while 23 percent claim cost savings of more than 100 percent compared to native apps and 40 percent say that development of a Web app will be weeks quicker. Apart from man hours, it helps that skilled Web developers are far more readily available than those skilled in native programming languages such as the iPhone’s Objective-C.

Another fundamental advantage is that Web apps are run on common browsers that can be accessed on most Web-enabled smartphones, so device-specific customization is much simpler from a developer standpoint. Therefore the cost advantage increases as the degree of hardware fragmentation increases. Another major benefit, as mentioned before, is that delivering updates for a Web app is much more convenient.

Since these are architectural advantages, we expect them to remain the case further into the future.

There is a misconception that Web apps cannot offer access to device capabilities, but the W3C is leading a concerted effort among browser vendors, handset manufacturers and operators to introduce such features via browser application programming interface (API)s. In fact the GPS API is already publicly available and included in many new browsers/handsets. I would not be surprised if in 1-2 years we will have augmented reality (AR) Web apps that will use the handset’s camera, accelerometer and GPS.

For consumers, Web apps have traditionally represented a cost disadvantage particularly when roaming data across countries. With the availability of the offline mode and more regulated roaming charges, at least in Europe, that problem should fade away over time, for example for news apps.

10) Why do many companies decide to do both? Can you give examples of companies that do both?

It has a lot to do with the fact that we are still very early into the era of mobile marketing, let alone cross-media broadcasting and advertising. As such many companies are testing the waters with both interfaces and waiting to observe how the overall industry and user behavior evolve.

Google is one prime example of a company that holds strategic interests in both approaches. On one hand it is launching and testing innovative apps such as Google Goggles first on Android, its own open-sourced OS platform; on the other it also makes sure that all of its established consumer apps such as Gmail, Maps and Voice can be accessed by all users from iPhone to BlackBerry to Nokia through the use of Web or additional native apps.

There are also numerous other examples from online business such as eBay, eBuddy, Twitter and Facebook, as well as bricks-and-mortar businesses such as FedEx and Continental Airlines. Typically only large companies with bigger development budgets can afford to offer both application interfaces.

11) Which categories of organization tend to choose or are best suited to native, Web or both options?

Our study shows that games, social networking, lifestyle and entertainment, technology and gadgets, and travel and local category apps, tend to prefer the native approach.

Web apps are dominated by news and weather publishers, who either only support a Web application or offer both. We know this because many major publishers with origins in both print media and broadcast have shown strong interest in our study results. Similarly, other categories such as communications, financial services, retail and shopping, where iterative design and user analytics are more relevant, may also prefer the Web approach.

There is no particular category of organization that chooses to launch both native and Web apps – the main consideration is: can we afford it?

12) Which types of organization tend to choose native, Web or both options for: a) paid-for; b) ad-funded; c) new channel to market (e.g. retailers, banks); d) seeding business via free demo, proof of concept; e) pure marketing, i.e. creating a branded novelty app or game to give away for free? (Would you say those are the main five types of app?)

I agree with your categorization, but would also add ‘subscription’ to the mix. Over 40 percent of our publisher respondents offer subscriptions as an important monetization model. As mentioned previously media companies have been particularly interested in our study. Generally speaking, big media publishers prefer to offer a Web application as an add-on to their existing subscribers, since it can be more easily integrated with their standard Web content without having to customize individual native apps. As said before, direct billing and version updates for subscription-based content also become easier when you launch over the Web browser.

On the other hand, we recognize that native apps will likely remain the preferred interface particularly for heavier apps that prefer to run from the device’s internal memory and for pay-per-download apps thanks to integrated billing options over native App Stores.

Regarding whether Web or native apps help to ad-fund or purely promote a service or brand, we don’t see any rule-of-thumb – different companies have achieved success via entirely different approaches. One thing that could be generalized, however, is that Web apps are definitely picking up steam in both developer and consumer adoption, so it is a channel that should not be overlooked. In fact I would argue it should be the first interface for brands to consider before moving into full-blown native development.

13) Which application is more secure?

Native apps definitely enjoy an architectural advantage in security, as they do not need to connect with the network as frequently as Web apps and, in some cases, skip the process altogether.

14) What’s the future? Any concluding comments?

So far we have been mainly discussing the choice between native and Web apps for mobile devices. It is important to recognize that we are increasingly moving toward a ‘multi-screen’ world, where brands will want to engage their users across a variety of media touch points. In that light the same debate will carry on to tablet devices and now Web-connected TVs, thanks to the expansion of Android and iOS platforms.

Personally, I believe Web apps will take on a larger mind share among both publishers and consumers, as hardware complexity grows and the desire for immediacy increasingly dominates modern media consumption behavior.

Updated: December 2016

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