6 questions to ask when deciding between native vs web apps

Five years ago, it looked like game-over. After a generation of web innovation, as smartphone apps’ popularity exploded in 2010, a famous Wired cover controversially observed: “The Web Is Dead”.

That didn’t quite come to pass – websites are still the common currency of the internet. But far more time on mobile devices is now spent using apps than the mobile web.

From a developer perspective, it’s no wonder. Unlike websites, apps have always benefitted from running on native code and from app stores that make for greater visibility. This has been accepted wisdom for a number of years.

Lately, however, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation has been staging a comeback. HTML5, the latest version of the mark-up language used to build pages, now lets developers do things with websites that just weren’t possible five years ago – things that, previously, were the preserve of native apps. Extensions of the AngularJS framework are arming web design with system-level access to things like camera, GPS and storage, just like apps.

>See also: The new era of app development – mobile vs. legacy

But which platform should you decide to develop with, and when? If you are facing the choice, it’s time to revisit the options, by answering these six questions.

1. How important is performance?

Is speed a priority for your experience? If so, don’t abandon apps. JavaScript has come a long way, but the web is in a perpetual state of catch-up, and is at a performance disadvantage compared with code running closer to the hardware.

Native apps have the distinct advantage of not requiring a browser engine. JavaScript’s requirement to run in a browser means it can’t access the graphical processor unit for truly great graphics, and so can only awkwardly approximate the kind of operations boasted by apps, resulting in slow animation and unnatural movement.

Web designers’ eagerness to match apps means increased load time, runaway CPU performance, hotter handsets, and lower battery life for consumers – something that is unlikely to change despite JavaScript’s upgrades.

2. Which devices are you targeting?

What is your business’ audience? Are they young, old, wealthy or otherwise? And what are your own circumstances? These questions may determine the platform you pick.

If you want to make a big, wide impact, the web – unencumbered by operating systems and running on desktops as well as mobiles – will always offer the broadest reach possible. After all, these days HTML engines are on all manner of gadgets.

What’s more, if you have zero investment capital, straightforward project and want a mass reach for little money, it stands to reason the open web is a good choice.

But guaranteed reach doesn’t guarantee the best experience. If you need to give engaging, interactive content to a targeted audience, authoring directly for operating systems will ensure the most visual, natural presentation.

3. What does the offline data for your app look like?

Does your service need to store any data? Many companies these days store users’ preferences, favourites or more information. Whilst most of them tend to file this data online, the possibility that phones may lose signal means local storage must also be used.

Although mobile web browsers can store cookies, these are not designed to store data sets of the kind many companies do, and HTML5’s typical storage capacity of 5Mb isn’t sufficient either.

Some enterprise companies have stored entire sales databases on-device, then synchronised up to the cloud when a connection is available. An app built for Time Out magazine stores users’ favourite locations on the phone, in case they happen to go underground, while video apps may need to store downloaded video for offline playback.

Only native apps with direct local file system access can support such features. Whilst some web browsers across the ecosystem allow some offline data, the uncertainty and diversity discourages us from developing for the web at all in such cases.

4. Will your users benefit from instant information discovery?

Will your service be used serendipitously, occasionally, to find things out, or regularly to explore or buy products?

When people are looking for an answer, they usually turn to the web. Search engines have become expert at reaching brands’ content through search, introducing many people to companies’ offerings.

This is how we find news headlines, addresses and other ephemeral content. It’s quick and joyful, unlike having to download an app to find the same information – a process that can take minutes.

So, if you are in the information discovery business, and if your content is the answer to a question, be searchable on the mobile web.

5. Is repeated engagement the most valuable metric?

If, however, your offering is geared to driving frequent, purposeful interactions, apps offer system-level integrations that can move the needle.

Home screen icons serve as constant “open me” reminders, notifications routinely prompt app re-opens, and home screen widgets and live tiles give users a constant peek in to apps’ full features.

Meanwhile, recent enhancements of search service integration for iOS Spotlight, Microsoft Cortana and Android, too, give the innards of apps more visibility on handsets.

In contrast, websites remain invisible on mobile home screens and app drawers, requiring active customer consideration before visiting.

>See also: Five mobile app trends that will change the way you do business in 2015

6. Do your customers trust you?

Are you trying to make money with your service? Reassure them of your provenance by delivering through respected existing channels.

A user is far more likely to spend money through an app store storefront, which they likely already trust, than a website, because these stores have already acquired a degree of trustworthiness and loyalty.

App store ratings and reviews give customers a barometer by which to judge a service’s worth – something that still doesn’t exist on the web.

The web has come a long way, and is now matching much of the gravitational force that pulled developers to native apps in the first place. For many, it may now be the right choice again – but for the most immersive experience, native code is still the way to go.


Sourced from Dan Ulzhoefer, CEO, UI Centric

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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