Web Applications vs. Native Applications: What's That Mean, Really?

In App Development

Within the mobile app development community, there's been a lot of animated discussion about the difference between web and native applications. We've found that outside the community, however, most folks don't fully understand the difference between the two. Before we dive in, then, we'd like to present a working definition of the difference between the two types of mobile apps.

Web applications are those written specifically to be accessed through a mobile device's web browser, whereas a native application is developed to work with a specific operating system or platform, such as Android or iOS. And practically since the moment these terms were coined and defined, each type has had its supporters and naysayers in the industry. Without really taking sides, we'd like to run you through some of the arguments being made for both app types.

The Case for Web Apps. From a developer's point of view, web applications are easier to write, since you only have to write one version that works across all web and mobile browsers. With native apps, a different version needs to be created for each platform upon which you want the app to function: one for iOS, one for Android, one for Windows 8, and so forth.

Also, from a developer's point of view, web apps don't have to go through the process of being accepted or rejected by the review teams of online apps stores, since they're not designed for a specific operating system. As Daring Fireball explains in a recent article, that distinction is invisible to your average mobile device user—but it can save developers from the sometimes frustrating acceptance process.

The advantages that consumers can see are as follows: web apps don't require the installation of new software, as several native apps do, as outlined in this article on Verizon's Wireless News. The fact that they work across all browsers is also convenient, as is the simple URL retrieval of web applications.

The Case for Native Apps. For developers, the biggest advantage is that native apps have access to all of a mobile device's features, since that access is part and parcel of the operating system. By comparison, web apps have limited access at best to device features and application programming interfaces (APIs). As a result, for the most part native apps tend to run faster and more smoothly than web apps.

As Business Insider recently noted, only 20% of mobile device user time is spent on the web; the other 80% of activity is through native applications. You can bet app developers are going to pay close attention to statistics like these, and act accordingly!

Finally, what can be a headache for developers is often seen as positive feature in the eyes of consumers: native apps are listed in the online apps stores. Consumers attach a sense of trust to these listings; many of them know the apps have been cleared by a review team. This isn't to say that web apps aren't trustworthy, but that the perception of trustworthiness or quality can accompany apps store listings in the eyes of mobile device users.

At this point, we should note there's a third type of app to be considered here, called a hybrid application. These applications are, at their heart, web apps, since they use browser-specific coding; however, they have a native app “shell” that allows them to be listed in apps stores and downloaded like native apps. For the purposes of space in this article, we'll consider hybrids as native apps, with the disclaimer that we realize it's a convenient oversimplification.

The Game Changer? In the Business Insider article cited above, they refer to the HTML5 coding language, which is already in use in many web pages and applications. They—and many others in the app development community—suggest HTML5 could muddy the distinction between web and native apps, if not eliminate it entirely. In brief, HTML5 allows developers to create apps that perform uniformly across all browsers and mobile operating systems. It's easy to see how the terms “web application” and “native application” could become moot points with HTML5 in the mix. As with any technology, of course, there has been, and will continue to be, hearty debate on the subject.

We'd like to wrap this all up with a quote from Wired, who recently published an online article on the subject:

Web Apps vs. Native Apps, a topic that still excites readers to this day, as if it were anticipated that one side will win and the other will lose. Contrary to popular belief, the discussion doesn’t need to produce a winner and a loser.

Not that we think it will stop the debate, of course!


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