The debate over which is better is a longstanding one when it comes to web apps versus native apps. Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion online surrounding declarations that the mobile web is dead and that native apps are the future. And, if you look at some of the statistics, then it’s quite easy to see where this belief is coming from.
If we go back a couple of years and take a look at the Flurry report that was released on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the mobile revolution, then it’s almost undeniable that the popularity of native apps was at that time set in stone. The study found that smartphone users spent 80% of their web time using native apps, and only 20% using the mobile browser. By 2014 native app usage had continued to cement its lead, rising to 86%.
Despite this, there are also quite a web-based writers who argue that it is in fact the native app that’s quickly approaching the end of its shelf life, and that the future of the app market lies in the mobile web app.
So, there are some quite conflicting opinions out there, and, I have to say that, on balance, I find myself falling into the latter group – I believe that web apps are the future. But, before I start exploring exactly why it is that I think this, let’s first take a moment to define the difference between web apps and native apps, so as there can be no confusion going forward.
So, what are native apps?
Well, quite simply, native apps are the ones that you download and install directly onto your smartphone, phablets or tablet, and can often work (depending on the nature of the app) with no internet connection at all. Native apps are always developed for one particular mobile device and operating system (the two most common are of course iOS and Android). Native apps are normally downloaded via app stores.
Ok, so what about web apps – what are they?
Web apps, on the other hand, always work via a web browser. They are still meant for use on smartphones and tablets, but, the important difference is that they need an internet connection to function, and they don’t need to be downloaded directly onto the user’s smart device itself in order to be accessed.
The Pros and Cons Of Native Apps and Web Apps
So the main differences between the apps are that native apps are developed specifically for one OS, and can be accessed online or off, whist web apps can be used on any device and are accessed via the internet in your device browser. When either are fired up and working, from a user’s point of view they will actually look and work in much the same way with not a lot of difference between them per se. However, that little differentiator – i.e. the internet connection – actually does prove to create a significant polarity for user experience.
To further explore the differences, let’s take a moment to weigh up the pros and cons of each. We’ll start with native apps.
The Pros Of Native Apps
- Native apps can work completely independently of the web.
- Native apps present in a way that seems to deliver web content in the app itself without the need of a browser.
- Native apps can work much faster than web apps, as they harness the power of the smart device’s processor.
- Quality is assured more than with a web app (depending on app store and dev), as users only have access to them via app stores, some of which having high standards to adhere to (iOS).
- They can access the smart device’s hardware, like the GPS system or camera.
- Combined with certain smartphones or tablets, the native app can act as a controller for other, third party devices, such as a smart lighting system, TV remote, or wearable video camera, for instance.
The Cons Of Native Apps
- Although they don’t necessarily need an internet connection, quite a lot of them nonetheless still do to perform the function of their design. All of the social media apps, like the Facebook app and the Twitter app for example, require the user to be online to receive any notifications or refresh news feeds.
- Even though the native app works as a standalone entity, the user still has to connect to the internet at regular intervals to download updates in order that the app is as current and as bug free as possible.
- Native apps will only work on the specific device and operating system that they are built for. This means that if you’re an app developer you will need to build two completely separate apps if you want to publish them on both Android and iOS. And, if you’re an app user with an iPhone, there will unfortunately be a lot of apps out there that are only available for Android – and vice versa of course.
- Native apps ‘weigh’ a lot more than web apps – averaging at around 20MB – and will require several data-heavy updates during their lifetime.
- Native apps are much more expensive to develop than web apps.
- Native apps take up quite a lot of space, and many users often find themselves having to remove one native app in place of another.
- A lot of native apps have web versions that don’t take up any space and perform nearly all of the same functions.
The Pros Of Web Apps
- Web apps will run on any smart device – provided, of course, that there is an internet connection and a mobile web browser.
- Web apps update themselves without the need for user intervention.
- HTML5 is about to mature and become an irreplaceable and very powerful tool for building web apps.
- Users don’t need to take up space on their devices by downloading web apps – access to them is as easy as bookmarking a page on a web browser.
The Cons Of Web Apps
- You will always need an internet connection and a mobile web browser to access web apps. In this vein, the web app will only ever be as good or as reliably functional as the strength of the internet connection that is used to access it.
- They can only access a limited amount of the smart device’s inbuilt features and hardware.
- Although cheaper to develop, web apps may actually result in higher maintenance costs across multiple web platforms in the long run.
- There is no regulatory control in place to guarantee the safety and standard of web apps like there is in app stores for native apps.
The Problem With Native Apps
As I mentioned above, I would place myself in the camp which believes that web apps have a much brighter future than native apps. I know – this might actually seem like a counterintuitive conclusion to draw when looking at the evidence. For one thing, apps still dominate smartphone and tablet usage compared to the mobile web (i.e. where web apps are located). For another, I could think of fewer ‘pros’ on my web app list than I could on my native app one.
But, importantly, I could think of far fewer ‘cons’ as well. And so here’s the situation as I see it. Native apps are undeniably extremely entertaining and useful – however, they are still somewhat of an inconvenience for users and developers alike.
Let me explain. For users, native apps are difficult when it comes to installation because of bandwidth constraints, the frequent release of updates, and file sizes. They take up space on your smart device, most of them need an internet connection anyway, and they are not available across all platforms.
So What Makes Web Apps So Great?
Well, at the moment, native apps are still top dog. Despite all their inconveniences, they’re still so tightly integrated with the various OS capabilities that they are, for now at least, continuing to grow richer and better by the day, and are of course still miles ahead of the mobile web in terms of usage.
But will this trend last forever more?
No. I’m almost certain that it will not. There is a plethora of new web APIs and libraries getting released all the time, and, very slowly perhaps, the web app is starting to appear as more appealing than the native app. Native apps are not going to be completely usurped overnight, but the fact is that the capabilities are already there to build responsive high-functioning and performing web apps right now.
App developers need to understand where the market is going. And, as web apps start to carry more capabilities and perform more and more like native apps, then it is towards them that the market will most likely go. If you’re an app developer who is still absolutely invested in the building of native apps, then the time is now to start to diversify. Native apps will of course be your bread and butter for the short-term future, but, as web apps take off, it is imperative that you start honing your skills early while you’re waiting for the rest of the mobile world to catch up.
This is just my humble opinion of course (though it is shared by a few others), and you may beg to differ. But, if apps do come full circle, then you want to make sure that you’re in the best position to capitalise on the market.
What do you think? Are web apps really the future? Let us know in the comments below.