Explainer: Native and Web Apps


When Apple coined the phrase “There’s an app for that,” it left out what kind of app it was talking about. In truth, it meant “There’s a native app for that.” But then, that doesn’t sound so snappy. Here’s a quick primer on the differences between native and web apps. You can bet they would rather mobile apps be synonymous with their native app store than have any spotlight cast on their web counterpart.
What They Are: Think Microsoft Word on your computer. A native app is installed on your computer. Any app downloaded from an app store onto your mobile phone is a native app. For web apps, think Google Docs through your browser. A web app is not installed on your device but is accessed through your browser. With Google Docs, the information is all stored on Google’s servers. For the most part, you’ll need Internet connection to actually use the app.
Why It Matters: It all comes down to functionality and control. There are tradeoffs when choosing a native app over a web app — and vice versa. Native apps run directly through the operating system of your phone, giving it access to all of the features and functions of the device on a hardware and software level. The downside: an app built to run on the iPhone won’t be able to run on Android. A web app is executed through the browser, not directly through the operating system, meaning developers only need to write once. Web apps can take advantage of all the native features and functions that the browser is allowed, but due to the unrestricted nature of browsing the web, deeper level functionality is often reserved for native apps, which can access the devices contact list or the file structure of the device.
Who Is Doing It: Apple is clearly behind native apps. It has a vested interest, of course, in continuing the association of app with the native variety, since that’s the biggest marketing point used for the iPhone. The Web app world, like the Internet, is much more splintered. HTML5 has many backers, including Google who straddles the line, supporting both native and web apps. Where all level of developers can be seen in the native app ecosystem, only the highest quality of web apps seem to make it to mainstream consumption.
Assessment: Web technology is improving. HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript are universally recognized languages across browsers. The advancements in the technology have grown to the point where if a browser was allowed all the same functions that a native app could take advantage of, web apps would almost be on par (save for a degree of performance and full offline capabilities). The struggle revolves around the web being too open of an environment with some serious security risks. Web apps also face an uphill battle when it comes to marketing and distribution since nothing like the iPhone App Store can easily exist for them. Apple tried this before their native store went live and all the apps were free. Web apps work for those looking to offer an existing user base a strong mobile experience. If the goal is to build the user base of the app directly, the best option is a nearly always native app. Finally, there’s the fact that Apple has built a distribution juggernaut with iTunes. That alone will keep the native app market alive and well for the foreseeable future.

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