I had a discussion with a competitor recently and we found ourselves agreeing on the fact that it seemed like a no-brainer to build a mobile web app rather than a native app.
Building a mobile web app is significantly faster and the pool of talent available to complete the work is vast compared to a small, more specialized group of native app developers. With that in mind, the total cost of development is significantly less expensive for a web app. On top of that, the web app can adapt to more devices through the browser than a native app. For a long time, limitations with mobile apps justified the investment in natives.
First, User Interface was the primary concern. Web apps adapted to the mobile and tablet experience poorly and didn’t account for haptic response and dynamic interaction features. Then, the responsive design era began and developers found a way for their apps to change to meet the interaction of a mobile device. Empowering builders further, services like Sencha and Kendo UI evolved to provide developers with out-of-the-box web development tools to scale mobile UI features.
However, native device features, such as offline storage, camera, accelerometer, GPS, and other major functionality lynch-pins couldn’t interact with a mobile application running in the browser. If you needed any of these features you had to build a native app. This must have been a stranglehold companies like Apple envisioned maintaining, forcing the evolution of a developer community tied to their technology and code standards. Again, the model changed when companies like PhoneGap evolved, enabling developers to “transform” web apps into native mobile apps. Put in a mobile app, get out a set of native apps for Apple, Android, and Blackberry (a little more complex than that). PhoneGap allows you to communicate with native device features by writing to its API in the web app, but after transformation, working perfectly as a native app.
In looking back, I realized we never talked about the lost benefit of App Store discovery with a mobile app. Both of us have B2B web apps that provide a business service, and all of our users are more than happy to be directed to the app or to go seek it out. Having new consumers discover us in an App Store was an afterthought, but in hindsight, a major drawback to mobile web apps is the lack of App Store consumers. If an app is consumer focused, this could be a deal breaker. That said, a complied mobile web app, like those generated by services like PhoneGap, circumvent this since the output is a native app that can be made available in the App Store.
It’s getting harder and harder to make a case for a purely native application, but all things considered, native apps still make sense in certain cases. For example, a very large, prolific service would want teams developing and managing native applications. But for the startup looking for bang for the buck, the proliferation of mobile development technologies have greatly facilitated the expansion and rapid growth of the mobile app economy and the mobile web.
This is an open discussion and I want to know if you think I missed anything. If you have thoughts, comment below