Mobile Computing: Native Apps versus Web Apps

A Little History

In 2007, the iPhone started life with only web apps. It wasn’t until native apps became available which could directly interface with the iPhone hardware that the app market took off. In 2008, Apple introduced the now famous App Store. The App Store provided an effective means for marketing and monetizing native apps.

Early on, web apps were relatively anemic and seemed slower than native apps. In the last three years, web apps have closed the gap and offer a variety of useful features such as local data storage, better user interfaces, and improved access to local device hardware features.

New web technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3 and wrappers such as PhoneGap and Appcelerator can make web apps more like native apps. These web apps can be submitted to App Stores and more easily monetized. Web apps are now beginning to rival native apps for such applications as reference guides, word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools, and a wide range of productivity and business software including inventory management and point-of-sale. Native apps still remain the choice for some gaming and other high-bandwidth apps because of their need to squeeze out every ounce of performance from the device hardware.

A Higher Perspective

Some questions to consider when developing a mobile app are: “What is the purpose of the app? Does it positively promote something, an event, a brand or an artist? Should it expand on, just replicate, or provide a subset of the services of an existing company? Is it a standalone utility or a productivity application? Is it too simple or too complex? Does it function the way people expect? Are users happy with it?”

Decision makers should weigh the added benefit of “going native.” The sleeker native app with more potential functionality and better performance, may not justify the extra cost compared to a comparable web app. If an app can just as well be either, perhaps a web app is preferable because of its lower development cost and wider device compatibility.

Start-ups with novel and groundbreaking concepts need to make a big splash right away. Here, a powerful native app approach targeting the two largest platforms – iOS and Android might be the best choice. Web apps could then be developed to support other mobile platforms like BlackBerry and Windows Mobile.

A company might instead choose to start with a web app, perhaps “wrapping it” to look native. Later, it might develop native apps with extra features for markets where the return justifies the extra cost and effort.

Many of the apps in the Apple App Store are actually wrapped web apps so that the app owners can have an App Store presence and more easily monetize their app using Apple’s app purchasing and content subscription mechanisms.

Web apps are becoming more popular. Case in point: sharing and social networking. Mobile productivity tools that were fine as native apps are giving way to web apps that can use any device with a web browser to access content. Apps and games now share content, high scores and other information.

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