Mobile apps vs native apps

IMDB mobile app adThere’s a lot of guff around on the battle between mobile apps versus web apps. There is guff because companies have made investments one way or the other, and want to believe that they made the right choice.

So let’s be succinct. There are only two things to be concerned with:

  • Can a user find the application?
  • Does it work great?

Can a user find the application?

Unless you have a massive established brand (hello, Financial Times) you have to go to where users are looking for you.

  • They Google and find a website. If it’s very usable (so either the desktop version reflows well or there’s a mobile site) they’re done. If it sucks or the website advertises a mobile app (e.g. Meetup, IMDB, Yelp) they’ll go to the app store.
  • They search the app store directly and find an app. If it sucks they know it’s not going to get any better, so they’re done.

This behaviour is determined by the end user’s habits and the OS. The end user’s habits will vary by user, but is guided by their history. So many people use apps (especially in the US) that it’s going to be hard to train them out of searching app stores. The OS is also going to promote App store searches as long as apps appeal to users.

Does it work great?

Short answer – native apps work better than web apps. Web apps are getting better.

If a user downloads an app and uses it, they don’t care that you created an Android version as well. They don’t care that there’s feature parity. They just care that it works great on their device. That means fast UI response. Familiar widgets. If needed, access to device hardware (camera, GPS) and offline functionality. That’s all available with native apps – and somewhere between difficult and impossible on mobile web apps.

Here’s the only contentious point. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could produce web apps and not have to pay the Apple / Android tax? Only have to create once and have it run anywhere? Yes, it would be lovely – this is absolutely a better situation for app developers. This will only ever happen if:

  • Users quit searching app stores (because OSes stop promoting them, and because they know that websites work great on their mobiles anyway)
  • Mobile sites are just as smooth and functional as mobile apps.

But can you get away with it yet?

  • Can you drive enough users to come to you, if you’re not in the app store?
  • Does it bother you if users who DO search the app store end up looking at apps that are competitors or repackaged versions of your web content?
  • Will a mobile web application work well enough that shifting to native wouldn’t make a different experience?
  • Are all your developers humping HTML5 and thumbing their noses at Xcode and Eclipse?

Halfway houses

There are wrappers available that let you code once in web languages and run everywhere. The two big ones are Titanium and Phonegap. They kinda work, but you’ll be dealing with bugs and weirdnesses from not just one programming environment, but two.


Using mobile web apps will happen, but we’re still way off. Native apps will cost more to build and work better. Mobile web apps will cost less and work less well (although this will get better over time). Most people will want native apps right now, but evaluate your specific situation carefully. Only you can make the right choice for your business.


2 responses to “Mobile apps vs native apps”

  1. My site doesn’t play very well with phones at the moment so I’m scratching my head quite a bit.

    What are your thoughts on frameworks that aim to help you write a mobile version of your site? :

  2. Great article. It sounds like web apps are still a way out, just as a reminder: Facebook has already moved entirely to web app (HTML5) and their app is even superior to their prior, native iOS (and Android) app. So I think this switch is happening right now, and if you build an app from scratch you may be best off, if you don’t need a lot of device API support (e.g. for building a game), you’re probably better off investing into HTML5

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