You’ve decided your business needs a mobile app. You know the benefits you hope to gain and the features your customers want.
But there’s one question you haven’t answered: web-based app or native mobile app?
It seems like a simple question, but it’s actually several questions.
As you peel back the layers of both mobile web technology and native mobile app platforms, you realize that both web and native involve several choices within themselves.
For web apps, can you get away with a responsive website design, or should you build a progressive web app (PWA)?
Or should you go with a native mobile app—and if so, should it be iOS or Android?
Let’s try to answer some of these questions with a closer look at all the options.
Responsive Web Design
Soon after smartphones made it possible to access the web on mobile devices, responsive web design came about. The goal of responsive design was to make websites perform better for mobile users, and in that regard, it succeeded admirably.
Responsive to screen size. The nice thing about a responsive site is that it automatically adjusts to fit the user’s screen, so it looks good no matter what size device your customers are using—smartphone, tablet, or another web-enabled device.
Limited features. Responsive websites can’t give you the features you need to engage your customers at a high level. Simply put, mobile users expect more out of your app—push notifications, offline support, and other features that responsive web design just can’t deliver.
Progressive Web Apps
PWAs use modern web capabilities to deliver an app-like user experience, and give you more features than responsive websites. With a PWA, the user is presented with a customized version of your website.
More features available. PWAs deliver all the functionality of immersive, top-level apps, with the ease and speed of the web.
Not responsive to screen size. PWAs must be developed for specific screen sizes. This means that you may have to develop different versions of your PWA for each smartphone and tablet screen size—or at least the ones you want to target.
Native Mobile Apps
Native mobile apps are built for a specific platform, such as Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. They are downloaded and installed via an app store. Unlike responsive websites and PWAs, native apps have access to system resources, such as location data and the camera function. Mobile apps live and run on the device itself.
Manufacturers like Samsung, Acer, Dell, HTC, Lenovo, Sony, LG, and many more use the Android open-source environment for running apps on hardware such as smartphones, tablets, and wearables.
Huge international smartphone base. Globally speaking, Android holds the largest smartphone user base by far. According to StatCounter, Android owned 73% of the worldwide mobile operating system market share in 2020, while iOS held 27%. (When you break it down by region, however, the picture changes drastically. More on that in a minute.)
More features. Because Android is an open-source system, Android developers receive access to many features unavailable or restricted in iOS applications, an advantage particularly useful to custom Android app development companies.
Quick and inexpensive app release. Android apps can be easily published to the Google Play app store, sometimes in just a few hours. In Android app development, the cost to publish an app is only $25.
Fragmentation. Android devices from various manufacturers come with so many screen sizes, resolutions, and other hardware differentiators that development teams might need to spend more time on customizing features to work with specific devices.
Testing can be lengthy. Manufacturers vary, too, in terms of when they adopt different versions of the Android OS. In conjunction with hardware variations, this can add time to QA testing for Android app development companies.
Development costs can be high. If development and testing are lengthy procedures, this can raise a company’s overall costs substantially.
In contrast to Android, Apple’s iOS is a closed system. iOS developers using the platform can only create apps for Apple hardware devices—iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and so on.
High-end demographics. While Android enjoys the lion’s share of the global market, iPhones are more popular in wealthier countries. Statista reports that 58% prefer iOS in the US, and 69% prefer Apple over Android in Japan. And Apple users spend more, accounting for 64% of worldwide consumer spending on app stores.
Quicker development time. Because iOS powers only Apple products, iOS developers only need to fit an app to a limited number of devices and screens.
Large installed iPad base. If you’re planning an app that runs on tablets, iOS can be a particularly attractive environment. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Apple continued its perennial lead of the worldwide tablet market, shipping 19.2 million units and capturing 36% of the market share, according to Canalys.
Longer release time. After submitting an app for review, Apple developers can wait up to a week for an answer. This is mostly due to the extensive testing and examination of the app by Apple’s reviewers.
Lack of flexibility. iOS apps can also be difficult to customize due to the many restrictions of the platform. Developers must abide by strict rules for security, performance, and type of content. Some developers feel like this robs their work of the ability to stand out, making apps all seem too similar.
Risk of rejection. Compared to the Google Play Store, Apple’s App Store has strict review guidelines for both apps and updates. Apple might reject an app or update based on its content, security issues, or poor performance. Many apps get rejected when they don’t meet Apple’s criteria.
Choosing an Approach
Weighing the pros and cons can guide you to the best solution for your mobile app, but if you’re still struggling, here are some broad recommendations:
- If you’re simply looking to give mobile browsers a better way to find information on your existing website, a responsive design might be the way to go.
- Want to reach users in the US and other wealthy countries? You could limit your app to iOS, since Apple devices are the leaders in those countries.
- To reach users all over the world, choose either Android or a PWA, depending on the functionality you want.
Need more information? Take a deeper dive with our white paper, The (Almost) Complete Guide to Mobile App Development.