Native App vs. Mobile Web App: A Quick Comparison

Jul 11 2012 by JT Mudge | 23 Comments

Native App vs. Mobile Web App: A Quick Comparison

A light bulb goes off. You have the next great idea for a mobile app that you want to develop. It’ll change lives. It’ll make you millions. What’s the next step you need to take?

One of the things you’ll need to decide early on in your mobile application development process is how you’ll build and deploy your app. There are two main directions you can go: native app or mobile web app. In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between the two so you can make an informed decision.

Native App vs. Mobile Web App: Definition

First, let’s define what we mean in this article when we say "native app" and "mobile web app".

What is a Native App?

A native app is an app for a certain mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) They’re installed directly onto the device. Users typically acquire these apps through an online store or marketplace such as The App Store or Android Apps on Google Play.

Examples of native apps are Camera+ for iOS devices and KeePassDroid for Android devices.

What is a Mobile Web App?

When we talk about mobile web apps in this article, we’re referring to Internet-enabled apps that have specific functionality for mobile devices. They’re accessed through the mobile device’s web browser (i.e. on the iPhone, this is Safari by default) and they don’t need to be downloaded and installed on the device.

Comparison of Native App vs. Mobile Web App

Let’s do a quick rundown and evaluate native apps versus mobile web apps under these factors:

  • User interface
  • Development
  • Capabilities
  • Monetization
  • Method of delivery
  • Versioning of the app
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

User Interface

Some companies choose to develop both a native app and a mobile web app. Here’s a side-by-side look at Facebook’s native app and mobile web app:

Notice that, in terms of the general look-and-feel, there’s little difference between the two, making for a consistent user experience.

Development

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Each mobile application development platform (e.g. iOS, Android) requires its own development process Runs in the mobile device’s web browser and each may have its own features and quirks
Each mobile application development platform has its own native programming language: Java (Android), Objective-C (iOS), and Visual C++ (Windows Mobile), etc. Mobile web apps are written in HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript and server-side languages or web application frameworks of the developer’s choice (e.g. PHP, Rails, Python)
Standardized software development kits (SDKs), development tools and common user interface elements (buttons, text input fields, etc.) are often provided by the manufacturer of the platform There are no standard software development kits (SDKs) that developers are required to use to make a mobile web app
There are tools and frameworks to help in developing apps for deployment on multiple mobile OS platforms and web browsers (e.g. PhoneGap, Sencha Touch 2, Appcelerator Titanium, etc.)

Capabilities

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Can interface with the device’s native features, information and hardware (camera, accelerometer, etc.) Mobile web apps can access a limited amount of the device’s native features and information (orientation, geolocation, media, etc.)

Monetization

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Mobile-specific ad platforms such as AdMob (though there can be restrictions set by the mobile device’s manufacturer) Mobile web apps can monetize through site advertisement and subscription fees
Developers have the ability to charge a download price and app stores will typically handle the payment process (in exchange for a percentage of sales) Charging users to use the mobile web app requires you to set up your own paywall or subscription-based system

Method of Delivery

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Downloaded onto a mobile device Accessed through a mobile device’s web browser
Installed and runs as a standalone application (no web browser needed) No need to install new software
Users must manually download and install app updates Updates are made to the web server without user intervention
There are stores and marketplaces to help users find your app Since there is no app store for the Mobile Web, it can be harder for users to find your app

Versioning of the App

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Some users may choose to ignore an update, resulting in different users running different versions of the app All users are on the same version

Strengths

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Typically perform faster than mobile web apps Have a common code base across all platforms
App stores and marketplaces help users find native apps Users don’t have to go to a store or marketplace, download the app and install the app
App store approval processes can help assure users of the quality and safety of the app Can be released in any form and any time as there isn’t an app store that has to approve the app
Tools, support and standard development best practices provided by device manufacturers can help speed up development If you already have a web app, you can retrofit it with a responsive web design

Weaknesses

Native Apps Mobile Web Apps
Are typically more expensive to develop, especially if you’re supporting multiple mobile devices Mobile web apps can’t access all of the device’s features (yet)
Supporting multiple platforms requires maintaining multiple code bases and can result in higher costs in development, maintenance, pushing out updates, etc. Supporting multiple mobile web browsers can result in higher costs in development and maintenance, etc.
Users can be on different versions and can make your app harder to maintain and provide support for Users can be on different mobile browsers and can make your app harder to maintain and provide support for
App store approval processes can delay the launch of the app or prevent the release of the app For users, it may be harder to find a mobile web app because of the lack of a centralized app store (though listings do exist such as Apple’s Web apps and you can request to be listed in them)

Native App vs. Mobile Web App: How Do You Choose?

To help you decide how you should build your mobile app, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the mobile app require the use of any special device features (i.e., camera, the camera’s flash, accelerometer, etc.)?
  • What’s my budget?
  • Does the mobile app need to be Internet-enabled?
  • Do I need to target all mobile devices or just certain devices?
  • What programming languages do I already know?
  • How important is speed and performance?
  • How will this app be monetized effectively?

Answering these questions can help you make an informed decision.

Conclusion

Whether you decide to build a native app or a mobile web app depends on many factors: business objectives, target audience, technical requirements and so on.

You don’t necessarily have to choose between building a native app or a mobile web app. As mentioned earlier, companies like Facebook maintain both native apps and a mobile web app. However, for many of us, budget and resource constraints will require us to decide if we need to build a native app or a mobile web app (or, at least, will require us to prioritize which one to develop first).

Related Content

About the Author

JT Mudge is the co-founder and technical director of LitmusBox, a web development services company. He’s been involved in web development and Internet business consulting for over 15 years. You can reach JT via his website, LinkedIn and Twitter (@jtmudge).

23 Comments

Adam S

July 11th, 2012

Of course, the big problem with this article is that Facebook – used as the real measure here, is actually mostly HTML5. There is an Objective C frame, but ultimately, Facebook’s content is written in HTML. It’s loaded – all the HTML, JS, and CSS – and rendered and displayed locally. That’s why the app is dog slow.

Rumors that Facebook are just days away from releasing a true native story are everywhere. Only then will I consider Facebook a “native” app. Any app that is just a wrapper around Webkit is more like a “halfway native” app.

Chris

July 11th, 2012

The irony of the comparison is that the Facebook iOS app isn’t native. It’s a HTML5 wrapper. So you’re still loading a web page.

Deltina Hay

July 11th, 2012

Great article, JT! Nice balanced comparison…

Charlie

July 11th, 2012

Programming for Windows Phone 7/8 will let you leverage any of the .Net languages (VB.net / C# / F# etc)

MichaelC

July 11th, 2012

I guess you’re not aware, but the Facebook app is just a wrapper around a web app. So, as far as representing native apps, it really doesn’t. Path would be a better example of a native app, if you want to stick with social networking. Others would be Tweetbot, Paper, or Netflix. If you’re going to try and compare the two, choosing a proper native app will make for a much better comparison.

Tavis

July 11th, 2012

Great article JT!

John

July 11th, 2012

This is a bad example because Facebook iPhone app is not exactly a native app. All they do is use a webview controller to display their mobile app.

They recently announced that due to the slowness of this approach, the next version of the Facebook app will actually use the native code instead of relying on the webview.

Matt Galligan

July 11th, 2012

Solid info. One criticism though is that you use Facebook as your example of Native vs. Mobile Web apps. As far as Facebook’s iOS “native” app is concerned, only the chrome of the app is actually native. All of the other experiences inside of the window are actually HTML5 and not truly native. This leads to a far degraded user experience and it’s quite slow.

A better example might be to show off the Twitter native app vs. the Twitter mobile web app.

Just my $0.02.

Abdullah

July 11th, 2012

Very helpful post thank you very much for these hints.

DyanGalih

July 11th, 2012

How if use phonegap? http://phonegap.com/. It’s can make Mobile WebApp to Native App like. Write in html5, js, and css, but still can access all hardware device.

raybak

July 12th, 2012

Nice article.. so overall it looks to me that mobile web app is more beneficial for small apps..

Amr ElGarhy

July 12th, 2012

Nice article,
It will be nice to share with us some successful famous Mobile Web Apps to check.

Graham Perry

July 13th, 2012

Great article JT.

Another advantage of native apps is they can store data locally – useful if you can’t connect to the internet.

K. Olsen

July 13th, 2012

Great article. Very useful information.
Keep up the good work JT ;-)

Norik Davtian

July 13th, 2012

The comparison is great except that the example is a hybrid app and not a native app as others mentioned here. I think if there was a hybrid app comparison in there would have made more sense. As @DyanGalih mentioned, phonegap is one of the tools to create these hybrid apps. Basically with hybrid apps you are running a mobile web app in a native code frame.

Hans Sandholt

July 13th, 2012

Great article. One major advantage with native app’s is the app can be useful even if the phone is not connected to the internet. This is crusial if information stored on the phone should be available for postprocessing etc.

Mimmis

July 13th, 2012

Nice overview, JT!
With a cross-platform development environment like the MoSync SDK (www.mosync.com/sdk) and with MoSync Reload (www.mosync.com/reload), you don’ have to settle for all these limitations in mobile web apps vs. native apps. You can create apps for up to nine different platforms at once using the same code base and one SDK. If you prefer to use standard web technologies (HTML5/JavaScript) for your development, you can use MoSync Reload to easily create and output true native apps, taking advantage of all the native features of modern smartphones. Check it out – it might be a good fit for all those developers out there that want to create apps for multiple platforms and who want to enter mobile.

Long Nguyen

July 13th, 2012

The Facebook “native” app is even slower than the web app. Guess why? Because the UIWebView within native app doesn’t have Nitro.

Roy Smith

July 13th, 2012

This is an excellent comparison of native vs. mobile apps. My only comment would be to point out that there is significant work being done by browser developers to add javascript device APIs to their browsers, which will allow web apps full access to the device’s hardware.

appMobi released “MobiUs” on iOS about a year ago, and it had full device API capability. Unfortunately Apple pulled it from the app store when it was open sourced in November. More recently, Mozilla and Dolphin have both announced or released betas of browsers with JS APIs that allow web apps full access to the device.

If you take away that distinction between Native and Web apps, the only thing left as a defining difference is UI speed, which can be an issue depending on what the app is trying to do on screen. Plenty of work going on to fix that as well – appMobi has delivered 10x speed improvement for games with directCanvas, and the jqMobi web app framework delivers native-like UI features on webkit browsers on both iOS and Android.

Probably the key advantage of web apps is the avoidance of the “Apple Tax” of 30% on all your monetization, and not having to be approved by the Apple App store before your app can be used. The downside, of course, is that you have to promote and deliver your web app yourself, as there is no central “web app store” yet.

Tom

July 14th, 2012

One thing is certain. It is much easier to make a mobile web app. At least for me.

Patrick Ezell

July 14th, 2012

The earlier comments are right on, Facebook isn’t a good comparison app.

The conversation of native vs web isn’t a simple one, the right choice is different for each situation – and there are times where you can roll a 80% native app and 20% might be served through mobile web, the trick is to make the entire experience feel like a native app. If a user doesn’t know then you’ve achieved your goal.

A couple high profile examples of a mobile web app:
Youtube (not what apple built/installs on iOS, visit youtube via your mobile web browser)

LinkedIn – All of LinkedIn’s native apps that you can install on your device are mobile web apps “wrapped” in a thin device specific wrapper so they can get into the devices app store. LinkedIn relies heavily on Node.js for speed and try and recreate a native app like experience. In a lot of ways they were successful, but for some users ( and if you’re looking for it ) you’ll see areas where movement, gesture interaction and loading of content that lower level of experience.

Example: On the iPad compare LinkedIn’s news section to flipboard. For the main app experience on Flipboard its all native – now there are places depending on the source of content where you will see web views pulled in – but overall the experience is of a much higher caliber. Now use LinkedIn on the iPad – this is all web app driven – its impressive what they did with mobile web – but its not the same as native.

Rey

September 1st, 2012

Thanks, really good article on comparison.

Robert Johnson

March 13th, 2013

Can you please tell me what my answers add up to?

Does the mobile app require the use of any special device features (i.e., camera, the camera’s flash, accelerometer, etc.)? – NO

What’s my budget? $10K to $20K

Does the mobile app need to be Internet-enabled? YES

Do I need to target all mobile devices or just certain devices? – ALL

What programming languages do I already know? – None (we are looking for a developer to build it – not us).

How important is speed and performance? – Data driven APP so we want good speed and performance – gaming quality would be over the top.

How will this app be monetized effectively? – We are looking at charging a small subscription fee plus in App purchases.

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