If you’re interested in the difference between native and web apps, this post is for you!
I’m no expert in mobile app creation, but I am familiar with the domain.
I spent a semester in college leading a team of software engineers in creating a native iOS app.
Although we never published it to the app store, it was a really fun and interesting project.
I’ll be approaching this domain from a business perspective.
So instead of getting too deep into the weeds of highly technical differences between these types of apps, I’ll offer what I think is a more useful perspective.
A Brief Overview of App Types
Application development for mobile devices is a rapidly growing field, rising to meet widespread cell phone use.
Most people carry their cellphones 24/7, and the device can even feel like an extension of ourselves.
There are literally billions of mobile device users spending most of their device time in applications.
Thus, app development offers the opportunity for significant income to those who can make something popular.
Screen sizes, hardware, and configurations vary widely and are constantly changing because of the fast-paced competitive nature of mobile development.
UI and UX design is vital in the reception of the app with the public.
The UI and UX are front-end components that the users interact with, but the backend is equally important.
The backend works behind the scenes to handle authorization, security, offline access, and authentication.
Traditionally coded applications are often initially tested using emulators before real-world field testing.
Emulators include Google Andriod Emulator, Android SDK emulator, TestiPhone, and iPhoney.
However, if you’re using a no-code tool, you can usually just preview the app and don’t need to worry about an emulator.
There are four regularly developed basic categories of applications:
- native apps,
- web apps,
- hybrid apps,
- and progressive web apps.
There are strengths and weaknesses for each type.
I’ll compare them in turn.
Native apps are applications developed for a specific mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet.
Users install native apps directly onto the device via an application marketplace.
The two biggest marketplaces to download native apps are The Apple App Store and Google Play for Android devices.
Native apps are capable of accessing mobile device hardware, USB, GPS, and cameras.
Native apps are also usually built specifically for the piece of hardware you are using.
For instance, many companies will develop a specific iPhone and Android version of an app.
However, you can often use the web app version of a native app on your mobile.
For instance, you can scroll through TikTok on your phone’s browser.
However, the web app on your mobile browser will likely prompt you indicating you can have a better experience if you download the native app version.
Native App Development
Traditional coders usually write Andriod apps in Java using Android Studio or Eclipse IDE.
For iOS, traditional coders often code in Swift or Objective-C use the Xcode IDE.
(An IDE is an Integrated Development Environment used to build apps in specific programming languages.)
Traditional developers also make use of software development kits (SDK) that Apple and Google have provided.
If you want to go the traditional coding route, going from zero coding skills to building a native app with functionality similar to Snapchat would take you 21 months according to an engineer at Snapchat.
You can read more about this from his answer below.
However, you don’t need to spend years of your life learning to code to build most native apps.
Instead, you could use a no-code tool like Adalo to build your app in months, weeks, or even hours as opposed to years!
Native Apps: Pros and Cons
- Available offline
- Faster user experience with better functionality
- Safe and more secure due to app store approval process
- May be easier to develop if using traditional code with Apple and Google developer tools
- More expensive development for (a traditionally coded app)
- Continual costly maintenance and updating needed (for a traditionally coded app)
- Getting approved for the app stores can be troublesome
- You may face commodification in the eyes of users if the app store is the only place your app is found (if it doesn’t have a corresponding web app)
Web apps are websites with desktop app-like features.
If a website has an opportunity to sign in, create a profile, and upload user-generated content, it’s probably a web app.
If the content on the website is static, showing the same thing to all visitors, it’s probably better classified as simply a website.
Because you access a web app via browser, they rely on the availability of an internet connection.
In other words, web apps are not downloaded onto the device as native apps are.
Well-developed web apps are capable of closely mimicking the experience of native apps.
When using the web browser, users may notice an ‘Open in App’ button at the top of the website.
This means the web app has a corresponding native app that is available for download.
Web App Development
Web applications are not developed using standard software development kits.
These three languages makeup the front-end trifecta of development, in use on virtually every website.
However, there are even more no-code tools available for building web apps than there are for native apps.
My favorite no-code web app designer is Bubble.
But you can find more examples here.
Web App Pros and Cons
- Function in-browser without downloading from an app store
- Cheaper and easier to maintain – most maintenance involves mobile responsiveness
- The traditionally coded development process is usually quicker than traditionally coded native apps
- Available to any user – no need to wait on app store approval.
- Marketing is easier than for native apps (The App Store isn’t the only way users can find your app).
- Won’t work offline unless using application cache browser features
- Slower than mobile apps if used on a mobile device
- Users won’t discover these apps in a marketplace setting (which can be a good thing)
- Quality and security depend on the development team
Hybrid apps combine components of both mobile and native apps.
This newest application format is essentially a mobile app put inside a native app shell.
Hybrid apps are becoming increasingly popular.
They are downloaded and can use system resources, like GPS and camera which are vital to many popular applications.
A browser is embedded in the app that is invisible to the user, which helps deliver a smooth responsive app experience.
Hybrid App Development
I don’t know much about the technical development of traditionally coded hybrid apps.
But if you have a great summary in lay terms, let me know in the comments!
I also believe people are working on making hybrid apps a possibility in the no-code space.
However, I’m not currently aware of any no-code solutions for this.
(But if you know of a no-code solution, again, let me know in the comments!)
Hybrid App Pros and Cons
- Faster development timelines compared to native apps
- Ability to operate across multiple platforms
- Capable of online and offline use
- Cheaper development investment
- Important to equally develop both native app shells on both platforms
- The appearance of the app can vary for users using different platforms
- More intensive testing required across devices
Progressive Web Apps
Progressive web apps are meant to improve upon traditional web apps and close the performance gap between hybrid and web apps.
This new technology was coined in 2015 and is sometimes shortened to PWAs.
PWAs do not need to be downloaded, but Google’s app store has moved to start including them because of their power and promise.
Companies and developers are turning to progressive web applications, especially those with e-commerce sites.
E-commerce is a huge segment of the internet economy.
When users visit a traditional web application, they are often required to download the native application to complete their purchases.
Unfortunately, the conversion rate to native app downloads is low.
PWAs allow users to continue shopping seamlessly without needing to visit the app store.
Companies that have launched PWA’s often see a significant jump in conversion rates.
Progressive Web App Development
Then they might use Google Lighthouse to test the PWA.
However, today you can use a simple no-code tool like Glide to make a PWA without writing code!
Progressive Web App Pros and Cons
- Increased eCommerce sales conversion and other metrics
- Able to work across any platform
- Responsive experience
- Extremely similar to a native app
- Secure due to HTTPS requirement
- Searchable in search engines
- No approval process for launch so possible quality issues
- Limited access to GPS and Speech features
- Traditionally coded PWAs are often more expensive than web app development.
Future of Application Development
Each type of application has strengths and weaknesses.
Trends will likely continue towards a growing number of hybrid apps and progressive web apps because of the combination of strengths from both native and web apps.
Native apps deliver a fast, secure, offline application experience for users but can be more difficult/costly to develop from both a traditional and no-code perspective.
Web apps are easier for developers to rapidly and cheaply develop.
And more no-code tools exist to create web apps than native apps.
Plenty of social platforms and search engines lead people to websites (web apps).
But fewer opportunities lead people to download a native app from an app store.
With the pace of development innovation, a new type of application is likely to arise in the coming years that can deliver an even better user experience without straining developers.
Regardless of the resulting type of app, I’m confident the future of app development is with no-code tools.
No-code tools will bring software development to the masses!
If I had to choose a type of app to develop today, I would choose a web app.
Like I mentioned, more no-code tools exist to build web apps.
And if you’re traditionally coding the app, web apps are typically less costly from a time or monetary perspective than a native mobile app.
Plus, a web app can be the perfect extension of a blog.
And a blog can bring recurring traffic (and potential customers) to your website/web app.
Likewise, I’m less confident in the possibility of success with native apps if you haven’t built a blog or marketing tool to drive downloads/sales of your app.
Relying exclusively on the app store for downloads encourages commodification of your app and zero-sum competition.
If you have more questions about the difference between these types of apps and which you should develop, let me know in the comments!