Business owners that need custom software tend to get drawn into the allure of "building an app", meaning they're looking to build something that users can install on a mobile device.
There are times when mobile apps (also called native apps) are a perfect choice. When a business comes in with a pre-defined solution, it can overlook the idea of building a web app, which may offer a much better solution.
There's less difference in user experience between web and mobile apps than ever before, thanks to the invention of Progressive Web Application (PWA) architecture. So how do you decide which approach to take when investing in your new software?
Although both application types serve the same purpose, native apps offer better performance but are more expensive to build than web apps. But there's more to consider than just performance and cost of development. Let's dig a little deeper into their differences.
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What is a native app?
A native app is developed specifically for a particular platform, such as iOS or Android. This type of app usually requires the user to install it directly into their device from a platform-specific app store.
Due to their inherent requirement to run on a device, native apps can run offline and utilize a device's built-in features and hardware, such as the camera, GPS, and other sensors. Interfacing with this hardware enables them to offer a fast and immersive user experience. Some features won't work without access to the device's hardware (i.e. fitness trackers, interactive map applications, virtual wallets).
However, since they are platform-specific, native apps are usually built using the platform's programming language for which they'll be used. Kotlin and Java are used to build Android apps, while Swift language is used for iOS apps. Having to write multiple codebases makes it expensive to build native apps, as you'll need twice the development resources.
The workaround is to create a hybrid application with a framework like Flutter or React Native that complies into two native codebases. This isn't a foolproof approach, but we want to avoid repeating topics we've already covered in detail. If you're interested in reading the pros and cons, check out our article comparing PWAs to native apps.
Advantages of native apps
Here are some compelling advantages of building native apps
One of the key advantages of native apps is that they can offer enhanced security compared to other types of apps. This is because native apps are more tightly integrated with the platform they are built for, which allows them to take advantage of platform-specific security features.
For example, on iOS, native apps can use the Secure Enclave, a hardware-based security feature, to protect sensitive data such as passwords and cryptographic keys. This makes it much more difficult for attackers to access this data, even if they can compromise the device itself.
Additionally, native apps can be more easily reviewed and audited for security vulnerabilities since they are designed to follow the platform's guidelines and conventions. This can help identify and fix potential security issues before the app is released.
Native apps tend to be fast and responsive since the code runs natively on a user's device. It can be fetched from a server or require loading time to display static content. Users can view content immediately when they open the app, whether online or offline.
**It's worth noting that this is no longer unique to native apps, since PWAs can do this too.
Native apps are specifically designed for a particular platform and can take full advantage of the device's hardware and software capabilities. For example, a native app on a smartphone can use the device's processor and memory to run more efficiently and provide faster performance.
Tailored user experience
Because native apps are designed specifically for a particular platform or device, they can take advantage of the device's features and capabilities, such as the camera, GPS, or accelerometer. This can make the user experience more intuitive and seamless, as the app can interact with the device more naturally and efficiently. Each operating system also has requirements around styling, interaction with keyboards,
For example, a native mobile app might use the device's GPS to provide location-based services, such as showing the user nearby restaurants or stores. This can make the app more practical and convenient for the user, as they can access information and services that are relevant to their current location.
Additionally, native apps can provide a more polished and professional user interface, as they are designed to integrate with a device's interface. This can make the app more visually appealing and easier to use, improving the overall user experience.
Access to device features
Native apps are developed specifically for a particular operating system, such as iOS or Android, which means they can more easily integrate with the features and functions of that system. For example, a native app on an iPhone can take advantage of features like Face ID or Apple Pay. This way, the app can offer more functionality. For example, an e-commerce app can access a user's payment info from Apple/Google Pay to complete a purchase without necessarily leaving the app.
Offline accessibility is another advantage of native apps. Because native apps are installed directly on the device, they can function even when it is not connected to the internet. This can be useful for applications that need to be used in offline or low-connectivity environments, such as when the user is in a remote location.
For example, a native app might allow users to access and view important information or data, such as a map or a document, even when they are not connected to the internet. This can make the app more useful and convenient for users, as they can access the information they need without worrying about having an internet connection.
Additionally, offline accessibility can improve the performance and reliability of the app, as it does not have to rely on a constant internet connection to function properly. This can make the app more stable and less likely to crash or experience errors, improving the user experience.
**This is another advantage that PWAs have replicated.
Native apps can provide push notifications for sending updates, alerts, and other important information directly to users' devices. This can be useful for engaging with users and keeping them informed about the app's content and features.
Disadvantages of native apps
Despite their advantages, native apps have a few drawbacks which you should consider:
High cost of development
The high cost of development for native apps is primarily due to the fact that native apps are developed specifically for a platform - iOS or Android. This means that a separate version of the app must be created for each platform. So you'll be forced to hire two teams of engineers to work on each version of the app, which can be time-consuming and expensive. For small businesses operating on a limited budget, the high cost of developing and maintaining native apps may reduce profit margins. Fortunately, with frameworks such as React Native and Flutter, you can build a cross-platform app that works on all devices and offers a native-like user experience. This can reduce the cost of development and maintenance.
Native apps are tied to a specific platform, so it can be a problem for businesses that want to reach as many potential users as possible. For example, if a business develops a native app for iOS, it will only be available to users of iOS devices, such as iPhones and iPads. This means that users of other platforms, such as Android or Windows, cannot access the app. As a result, the business may miss out on potential customers and revenue. Also, for your app to be downloaded, you may have to actively invest in marketing it to your target audience to prompt them to download it.
Lack of flexibility
Since native apps are tailored to specific platforms' unique features and capabilities, it can be challenging to update or add new features. The updating process is usually long and may involve downtime. This lack of flexibility denies businesses the opportunity to iterate quickly with the changing business and customer needs.
Dependence on app stores
Native apps can only be downloaded from their respective apps store. Unfortunately, app stores are crowded and competitive, making it difficult for users to find and download the app. In some cases, you may even have to invest in marketing your app to increase its visibility on the app store – this adds to your overall budget. Additionally, app stores take a cut of the revenue generated by the app, which can be a disadvantage for businesses looking to maximize their profits.
Since native apps need to be deployed through Apple's App store and Google's Play Store, the application needs to adhere to their guidelines. Apple places restrictions around "internal" applications being released on the app store that aren't intended for public use. There are ways around this, but they're expensive, clunky and time-consuming.
Code changes require updates
Anytime a bug fix or minor tweak is implemented, users need to download a new version of the app. If you're in the middle of fast-paced fixes, being forced to go through the deployment and download process can feel super inefficient and frustrating.
Commission & fees
If you're planning to make money from your application, then be prepared to cough up a decent commission. Apple takes a whopping 30% commission on any sales made through its platform. Google's rate is slightly kinder at 15%.
Now let's have a look at web applications.
What is a web application?
Advantages of web apps
Lower development and maintenance cost
Web apps are less expensive to develop and maintain since they aren't platform-specific. As such, a single codebase can run on all platforms and devices. So you can hire a small team of developers to build your app. The development process is also faster than building a native app, which translates to fast time-to-market.
Additionally, because web apps are accessed via a web browser, they do not have to be downloaded and installed from an app store, which can save on costs associated with app store fees and other charges.
Ease of accessibility
Since web apps are accessed via a web browser, they can be used on any device with a web browser and an internet connection. This makes them highly accessible and allows users to access the app from any device, regardless of platform or operating system. Also, since web apps are essentially websites, the content can be indexed by search engines and displayed on the results page. This helps increase your brand visibility.
Web apps are not tied to a specific platform or device; as such, they are highly flexible and can be easily adapted to changing user needs or technology. This makes it easier for businesses to update and improve their app over time.
Web applications lend themselves to search engine optimization and advertising in a more natural way than native apps. There's no point where the user is asked to pay for, and download, an application to their device. It's also easier to write blog content on a website that's seamlessly integrated with a web application.
Composability and extensiability
The MACH trend (Microservices, API-first, Cloud native & Headless) has swept the world of enterprise web applications over the past few years. The idea behind this approach is to build an application composed of many "microservices", or self-contained applications that specialise in doing things really well.
Integrating services like this rather than trying to build all the functionality within the codebase means you can extend the application with new services quickly. Adding a new AI-powered product recommendation engine becomes weeks of development instead of months or years.
Disadvantages of web apps
Limited access to native hardware
This is a bold claim, but the only disadvantage to building a web application over a native app is the limited access to native hardware.
Web applications don't have the same unrestricted access to a mobile device's features like camera, GPS, near field communication, and push notifications. The API for some hardware features are exposed, but not all of them, and not on all devices.
For example, web applications can't access push notifications on Apple devices (Apple says this feature will be available in 2023). Due to the lack of hardware access, it's sometimes necessary to create workarounds, resulting in certain tasks being performed inefficiently due to the overhead of running in the browser.
As a result, web applications may be limited in their tasks and may not be suitable for certain types of workflows. This disadvantage is a complete show-stopper for some app ideas.
In the past, it was possible to argue that web applications were also at a disadvantage in areas like security, performance, offline access and user experience. There are still some benefits to native apps in these areas, but it's minor at best. PWAs and static rendering techniques through cutting-edge frameworks like Next.js have brought web applications to a relatively even playing field.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What is the difference between a native app and a web app?
A: A native app is a software application developed specifically for a particular platform or device, such as iOS or Android. On the other hand, a web app is a software application that runs in a web browser and is accessed over the internet.
Q: Can a web app replace a native app?
A: In some cases, a web app may be able to perform the same tasks as a native app and may even provide a similar user experience. However, native apps have access to some hardware features that web applications do not (not yet, anyway!).
Overall, native and web apps are valuable tools for delivering software applications to users. Web apps are easy to develop and maintain and can be accessed from any device. No app store claims a commission; they're easier to market and have greater potential for extensibility. The only situation where a native app makes more sense than a web app is if the access device hardware is critical to the application's function.
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