Native App vs. Mobile Web? The Debate Almost Seemed Over, Until it Wasn’t

By Kelley McDonald, Senior UX Architect View Comments

native_app_vs._mobile_web.jpgA few years ago, there was a lot of lively debate about whether organizations were better off developing native mobile apps or browser-based mobile web apps. The relative merits of each were described and compared in-depth, and the underlying assumption was that organizations ultimately needed to choose one or the other (in fact, one of Celerity’s most popular events and its follow-up blog post was focused on just such a decision-making process).

Now, there’s a general sense in the digital community that the mobile web has come out on top.

In large part this is due to the widespread adoption of responsive design, where a single website is built so that it “responds” to the size requirements of multiple device screens. Responsive design spread fast because it promises a more sustainable, cross-platform solution that avoids the significant costs associated with building and maintaining a native app for at least the two major platforms, iOS and Android, if not more.

Responsive websites have the following advantages:

  • a single code base
  • launched one time as a coherent unit
  • updates are automatically propagated across platforms

While native apps present the following challenges:

  • require multiple versions
  • have to be developed using a platform-specific language
  • require a separate code base for each version
  • need approval from distribution stores (e.g., iOS App Store)
  • require multiple versions and hoop-jumping to update

Many organizations are questioning whether they need a native app if their responsive website can do almost everything, and do it more economically, while also being better optimized for SEO. What was once a “me too” clamor to launch an app in order to achieve parity with the competition has waned considerably. Many organizations are now clamoring instead to get their websites up to Google’s recent bombshell that only “mobile-friendly” sites will — for all intents and purposes — show up in search results on mobile devices. 

And there are even those, such as the widely read web development pundit Jeremy Keith, who dramatically predict that within a few years’ time, native apps will be mostly dead, except for the big app-based services (e.g., Uber, Snapchat, games) or for those outlier cases where an app is needed to leverage device APIs that are not yet part of web standards.

That's what pundits say. But what about the users?

If recent research on what mobile users are actually doing is any indication, it’s way too premature to ring the death knell of the native app as a mainstream marketing communications tool. Specifically, evidence has been mounting that users are spending a good deal more time using apps on their mobile devices than they are browsing the web:

So the common wisdom that responsive web sites, because they show up in general web search results and don’t require an extra “trip” to an app store, are therefore more likely to be used, turns out not to be true in certain contexts.

Here are the two main reasons native apps are still alive:

  1. Users have grown equally comfortable browsing app stores to find what they want and download it. Perhaps if they are just looking to find a quick piece of information, they’ll do so through the browser, but if they want to engage more deeply with an organization, especially if they want to exchange data or complete specialized tasks, they’ll take the time to get the app. Then, once they have the app, it lives on their device’s home screen, where it’s pretty much guaranteed they will see it multiple times in the future.

  2. Native apps have a noticebly superior performance. Witness the well-publicized about-face of two of the big players, Facebook and LinkedIn, who have pulled off the trick of going against the grain twice. First, when responsive sites were unproven, they threw their hats in the ring and pioneered their use. But, then, as responsive website mania took hold, they decided to go back to native apps, making the argument that a native app was the only way they could achieve the quality of experience they required. Interactions, animations, memory, and load times simply just work better on native apps, they argued.

Aral Balkan, in an enlightening Smashing Magazine article, notes that while mobile websites might be “catching up” with native apps in terms of leveraging device features (e.g., GPS), it’s more significant that native apps are outpacing mobile sites in other areas while closing on their previous advantages: ease of deployment and access, automatic updates, and data access.


So where is this all going?

Despite perhaps wanting a clear victor in the mobile Battle Royale, it seems that, for the foreseeable future, organizations will continue to be faced with making the same either/or decision: responsive site or mobile app? However, many people are already envisioning a time when the two approaches become indistinguishable, and the hard split between current web browsers and the current app platforms no longer exists. Ultimately, the reasoning goes, app interfaces are already, for all intents and purposes, just another form of “browser.” That is, their reason for being is the same as browsers, i.e., to enable end users to consume, manipulate, and employ data and other content delivered by the Internet.

The fact that we currently think of “the mobile web” as simply Safari, Chrome, et al. on mobile devices is just a mental construct left over from the desktop era. Likewise, the idea of an app as a “thing” – analogous to a physical product in the real world – is also just left over from a time when software was purchased and installed on individual hard drives. Today’s hybrid apps are just an inkling of what the future holds, a time when there will be no “browsers” or “apps” per se, but just different specialized interfaces for making the best use of what the Internet provides.

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Posted in: Mobile