Native Apps vs. Web Apps

Which is a better choice for developers?

Developing a mobile app is an involved process that starts with a mobile app idea. Next comes planning, designing, developing, testing, and deploying the app to mobile devices. Early on you'll have to decide whether to develop a native app or a web app. We looked at the pros and cons of both to help you decide which is the best choice for developers.

Overall Findings

Native Apps
  • Works for a certain mobile device.

  • App is downloaded onto a mobile device.

  • Functionality integrated with device's features.

  • Often perform faster than web apps.

  • App store approval process guarantees security and compatibility.

  • Developers provided with SDK and other tools for ease of development.

  • Can be more expensive to create and maintain.

  • App store approval process can be daunting.

Web Apps
  • App is internet-enabled.

  • Users access the app from their mobile device's web browser.

  • Easy to maintain due to common code base across multiple mobile platforms.

  • Can be made compatible with any older mobile device.

  • Can be released at developer's discretion since there's no app store approval process.

  • Limited in what device features it can access.

  • Safety and security not guaranteed.

  • More opportunities to monetize.

Native apps and web apps are both useful tools for users and worthwhile endeavors for developers. A native app works with a device's built-in features and is downloaded from an app marketplace, while web apps are accessed via the internet.

Home screen showing apps on a tablet
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

From a user's perspective, native and web apps can look and work very much the same. A developer may want to focus on native apps if they are interested in creating a user-centric tool. They may wish to focus on creating a web app if their app's functionality is application-specific. Many developers create both native and web apps to widen the reach of their products and offer the best possible user experience.

An example of a native app is the Camera+ 2 app for Apple’s iOS devices, while the Safari browser is a good example of a mobile web app.

Native Apps and Web Apps: Basic Differences

Native Apps
  • Developed for one particular mobile device.

  • Installed directly on device.

  • Downloaded from an app store or marketplace.

  • Uses device's native features.

Web Apps
  • Internet-enabled app.

  • Accessible via mobile device's web browser.

  • Don't need to be downloaded.

  • Limited in what native features it can use.

Native apps and web apps have some basic structural and developmental differences.

A native app is developed for a particular mobile device. It's installed directly onto the device itself. A native app is totally compatible with a device’s hardware and native features, such as an accelerometer, camera, and more, so a developer can incorporate these features into an app. Users download native apps from an app store or online marketplace such as Apple's App Store or Google's Google Play Store.

A web app is an internet-enabled app that is accessible via the mobile device’s web browser. Users don't have to download a web app onto their mobile device. Web apps can access only a limited amount of a device’s native features.

User's Perspective: Both Have Strengths and Drawbacks

Native Apps
  • Work with device's built-in features.

  • Perform faster on the device.

  • Easier to work with.

  • Users don't have to worry about security.

  • Users don't have to worry about device compatibility.

  • Due to various versions, users may have trouble communicating with other users of the app (e.g., games).

Web Apps
  • Users don't see any interface differences.

  • Users don't have to go to an app store to download.

  • Users don't have to worry if the app needs an update.

  • Not as much support across various mobile browsers.

  • Users may be more worried about security since there's no standardized quality control.

Developers want users to like their apps and find them helpful and easy to use. For the most part, both native apps and web apps are easy for users to access and work with. Still, each has its pros and cons as far as what a user may prefer.

Native apps are easy to download and work with. They're usually inexpensive and may offer a free or "lite" version. There's no need to worry about device compatibility or security because these apps have been fully vetted by the app store or marketplace. Native apps are faster and more efficient, as they work in tandem with the mobile device for which they've been developed. Native apps do require updating, however, so users must pay attention to make sure they have the latest version of an app. If users are playing a game with another user with a different app version, there can be some communication issues.

For users, web apps don't appear to be very different from native apps as far as interface and operation. Since web apps are accessed via a browser, there's no need for a user to find the app and download it onto their mobile device. There's no need to worry if the app needs an update since the latest version is always accessible. On the downside, users may be wary of security issues since web apps aren't subject to standardized quality control.

Developer's Perspective: Pros and Cons for Each

Native Apps
  • Mobile platforms have unique development processes.

  • Different programming languages needed for various platforms.

  • More expensive to develop.

  • Monetization is tricky, but app stores handle payments.

  • Getting approved can be difficult.

Web Apps
  • Various mobile devices and browsers present unique challenges.

  • Don't need approval from any app marketplace.

  • No standardized SDKs or easy tools.

  • Easier to monetize apps with ads, memberships, etc.

The app development process for native apps and web apps is different. Some aspects of each are easier for developers, but each also has its drawbacks.

Native Apps

Native apps are generally more expensive to develop. Developers have to pay attention to the mobile platforms they're working with because each platform has its own unique development process. Mobile platforms use various native programming languages, for example, iOS uses Objective-C, Android uses Java, Windows Mobile uses C++, etc. On the plus side, each mobile platform has its own standardized software development kit (SDK), development tools, and other user-interface elements, so developers can create their native apps with relative ease.

App monetization with native apps can be tricky, since mobile device manufacturers may lay restrictions on integrating services with mobile ad platforms and networks. Still, once your app is set up, the app store takes care of your revenue and commissions, which is nice.

Because app stores vet native apps so thoroughly, the process of getting a native app approved on an app store can be long and tedious for the developer. Sometimes apps are rejected and the developer has to make extensive changes.

Web Apps

Unlike native apps, developers don't have to submit web apps to any app store for approval. Since web apps don't need to be approved by an app marketplace, they can be released at any time and in any form the developer prefers.

Web app developers have to deal with the unique features and problems that come with various mobile devices and browsers. Web app developers use languages such as JavaScript, HTML 5, CSS3, or other web application frameworks. There are no standardized SDKs for web developers. There are, however, several tools and frameworks to help web app developers deploy their apps to multiple mobile platforms and browsers.

It's easy to monetize your web apps via advertisements, membership fees, etc. However, you need to set up your own payment system. Web apps are much easier to maintain because they have a common code base across multiple mobile platforms. However, maintaining apps across multiple platforms presents its own challenges.

While you don't have to jump through hoops to get an app approved, there is no specific regulatory authority to control the quality standards of these apps. Without a specific marketplace or store, it's harder to make your app visible to potential users.

Final Verdict

When deciding between developing native apps or web apps, consider how important your app's speed and performance is to you, if you want your app to include any device-specific features, and if you prefer your app to be internet-enabled. Your development budget is a factor, as is how you'd like to monetize your app in the future and what mobile platforms you want to support.

Many developers opt to work with both types of apps to widen the reach of their products and offer the best possible user experience.