Why Native Apps win the Mobile battle over Web Apps

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digital tablet pc with app icons and cloudIn the digital realm, businesses are searching for a solution from the mobility space as an enabler for them to reach or acquire customers. Typically, they run into a basic question whether to choose building a native application (or app for short) on one or two mobile platforms (iOS or Android) or a web application (otherwise known as mobile websites) that seemed to be ubiquitous across browsers on different mobile platforms. In this essay, I explain why native apps is currently winning the mobile battle over web apps.

In the world of mobile, there are preliminary two types of applications that run in any device: native applications or web apps (and sometimes, they go by the name of mobile websites). For this discussion, I will use web apps and mobile websites interchangeably.

What are native applications? They are applications built on the technology of the mobile platform. For example, if you build a native app on an iPhone or iPad, you are building on iOS platform. Other platforms include Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry OS, Firefox OS and others. Building on the platform allows the application to make full use of the device’s inherent capabilities such as the phone or other peripherals associated (for example, bluetooth or GPS) and access the data within the phone with permissions from the user. The only disadvantage is that it forces the application developer to rely on the app store of that platform (for example, iTunes for iOS or Google Play for Google), and splits the earnings with 30% passed to the app store. The advantages for the developer is that the app store has a billing system set up so that he or she can collect and track his or her monthly earnings in a seamless fashion. The only disadvantage is that you might need approval for some stores after you have submitted the app into the store. If you are in favour of building native applications based on your business objectives, you can refer to this article for which platform you should focus first.

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On the other hand, web applications are applications built on the browser on the mobile platform. The advantage is that most mobile browsers are HTML5 compliant, hence the developer needs to develop once and able to access the same site from different platforms using the same URL and code. The beauty of web apps is that it’s platform independent, and since you can run it immediately on the browser, you don’t have to wait for approval. For developers, you don’t have to split your earnings because there is no app store to control your app since all transactions are web based. In fact, Steve Jobs advocated web apps over native apps for the first generation of iPhones but switched the strategy to build an app store for native apps based on the feedback from the developers’ community.

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If you survey the landscape of applications widely, you will notice that native applications are more pervasive and prevalent over web applications.

How can the web apps turn the tide over the native applications? There are three points of transition which can facilitate more efforts towards building web apps over native apps:

  • Giving the browser on the platform the same capabilities to control the inherent features of the mobile device: This is probably the most important condition because the other two points of transition rely on this one. It requires the browser for the platform having the same capability to tap on the features of the phone minus the access to photos and location awareness, and allow the developer to leverage the same application development like the way how the native apps are built.
  • Unbundle the payment system from the App Stores to the browser: If there exist a payment gateway for mobile web of the same level as the desktop web (for example Paypal), the developer can remove the 30% charge from the native application. It is not just the payment gateway but also the developer can resolve the equivalent of in-app purchases on the web application. That will push developers to break away from the dependency of the app store and move towards one ubiquitous model of development. Responsive web design has enabled developers to build websites based on different screens (desktop, smartphone, glass and watch), but has not levelled up to allow payments across the mobile browser against the desktop counterparts.
  • Operating Systems and Developer Tools focused on HTML5 development on Mobile needs to get better: Despite the development of HTML5 for desktop and mobile web, the integration of HTML5 with mobile operating systems and the developer tools needed to develop are not as advanced or matched up to the native application development. An interesting tale of caution came from Facebook, which took an approach of building all native apps using a HTML5 framework, and ended up in the situation with the Facebook app running slow and destroying user experience. In the end, they acknowledged the mistake and went native given that they were focused to make mobile their revenue driver after they went public. Even LinkedIn favored the same approach in mobile development. While the developers have Xcode for iOS and Android Studio for Android for native development, the developer tools for web app development pale in comparison. Even if it was as simple as web development in desktop and using responsive web design, there is no consistent framework across different mobile platforms that allow the developers to take control of the mobile browser.

While technology remains to be the key issues to why native applications are holding to their current advantage, the business model is also part of the equation that will tilt the balance. One fact that most advocates of web apps underestimated is the simplicity of how developers can earn on the app store with systems of user feedback and payment integrated within. That advantage will deter the developers in shifting from one to the other. If the three points of transition do not happen, the only hope is that a new technology will shift the balance towards the web apps model someday.

Author’s Note: Photos licensed from iStockPhoto.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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