Web Apps vs. Native Apps

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Which is Best for Your Business?

Is the rise of mobile apps a death knell for the World Wide Web? Not quite. While content is being moved from the Web, where it’s openly shared, to closed environments that share data over the Internet but not on the “Web” — many important issues still need to be addressed.

How you plan on sharing your company’s content and product is a crucial part of your business plan. It’s vital to make the distinction between the Web and the Internet when directing your company’s mobile and e-commerce strategies.

For example, when accessing the Wall Street Journal from a Web browser, you’re on the World Wide Web, an interconnected network of billions of data points that’s regulated by an international body. When you access the Journal through a mobile app, you’re on the Internet; using various technologies like TCP/IP protocol, and communicating with the Journal’s servers to deliver their content to your device.

As smartphones and tablets have risen in popularity, companies have designed apps to accommodate mobile devices’ smaller browsing screens and restricted bandwidths. Developers found that apps could be tailored to complete a select handful of tasks in an attractive manner, funneling essential information to the user despite a less powerful device. However, advances in Web technology, namely in the form of HTML5 and CSS3, are offering alternatives to native apps.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, recently lashed out against closed-off native apps in Scientific American:

The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or email a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Pandora, which recently switched to a leaner, Flash-less Web app, now loads, on average, five times faster than the Flash version, a much faster on-boarding experience. However, the features of Web-based apps still lag behind those of their flashier, native, counterparts. The best method to reach customers is far from decided, however. Below are a set of parameters that you can use to determine the best platform and approach to deliver your product or content to the largest number of consumers and customers.

Accessibility

There are two facets of accessibility worth considering when deciding which avenue to take — accessibility as it relates to universality and broad, open access (a larger audience), and accessibility on the user device. On the device, as it stands now, there’s no real comparison. Native apps offer a smoother and more streamlined user interface, as they run offline on the device’s processor. Apple wowed the world with its iPhone’s home page, onto which crisp, fast-reacting app icons were set. The home page was so intuitive, a toddler could use it.

In fact, when a native app is live, there’s no comparing its functionality to a Web app. The one drawback, however, is that users have to download the apps individually. Also, the popularity of three different mobile operating systems means that companies have to commission three different versions of the same app to reach the largest audience possible.

Web apps offer more open access with lower performance standards. Last year, YouTube unveiled an HTML5 mobile site. The HTML5 version did away with Flash as the site’s video platform and now allows any smartphone device to access videos through pre-installed Web browsers. Although YouTube has a native app for every commonly used platform, the new mobile site is built to work with future devices and is cross-platform out-of-the-box. There will be no need to continually update its mobile app for the three major mobile operating systems. Also, updates and programming tweaks can be made without the user downloading an update directly to their device.

Performance/Features

While Web applications may provide more accessibility, even the most modern Web browsers still can’t provide the performance benchmarks that native apps reach. Web apps, with the exception of geolocation, don’t provide access to the slew of new hardware included in smartphone devices today. But apps that are coded specifically for certain classes of devices can integrate with a bevy of advanced hardware, including gyroscopes, cameras, microphones and speakers.

If your company is planning on delivering graphics-heavy or complex content, a native app may be a more suitable choice. If broad accessibility and searchability are focuses, Web apps are a better choice.

Web standards are improving, however, offering new ways to display content over the Web. HTML5, CSS3 and Java are leading the charge against the closed, native app dominance by offering video and animation features through the typical Web browser. The New York Times unveiled a Web app deemed “The Skimmer” that runs in a user’s browser window and looks startlingly similar to the publication’s mobile app — no download necessary.

Cost/Profitability

The costs associated with programming a new app for your business are obviously one of the most important concerns. Native apps demand a larger investment, as they require a specific set of tools and expertise to program. Moreover, native apps need to be programmed for several different devices. Web apps, which can be written in HTML5, work for all platforms, without parallel coding. Native apps are sold through centralized marketplaces, like the Apple App Store or the Android Marketplace, however these centralized markets maintain ultimate control over the distribution of your content. Web apps, meanwhile, are accessed directly over the Web so there’s no need to download from a central location. Web apps do require a Web developer with advanced knowledge of HTML and CSS. More advanced techniques will take more investment and time as HTML5 and CSS3 and are still relatively young standards. Speaking to a developer, you’ll find that their knowledge of HTML5 stems from Web communities that share lines of markup and new tricks.

Overall, there are certainly pros and cons of both native and Web applications. It all comes down to how you want your company to interact with customers. Native apps currently have the user-experience advantage but Web apps are quickly closing the gap. And price will, of course, be a consideration as well.

So if you’re looking to develop an app for your business, take some time to sit down with management. Decide exactly who you want to reach and what you hope to accomplish. Apps are an increasingly important way to reach your audience, so whether you choose a Web or native platform, the bottom line is businesses wanting to stay ahead of the curve should consider a mobile e-commerce platform today.

About the Author: Diane Buzzeo, CEO and founder of Ability Commerce, has more than 25 years of experience boosting sales for retailers. She leads a team that offers a groundbreaking software platform that increases the Web sales of clients by an average of 66 percent in the first year. 

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4 comments

JohnO 10-21-2011 3:01 PM

This is a pure piece of sales hype - sorry Ms Buzzeo we're years from "Death of the WWW" - provocative title so I got sucked in and read it.

How many small businesses have the $s to do this? How many mobile users are going to store an app for everything they want to do?

Absolutely ridiculous.

Hope you got paid for the article because I would never buy anything from your company

JohnM 10-21-2011 4:37 PM

Wow,  calm down JohnO... It was simply a comparison between the choices businesses have when it comes to web apps.

Are there businesses that pay to have apps built? Yes! Are there users that use apps to access a business' content? Of course!

And what is Ms Buzzeo selling? I think you missed the whole point of the article.

DanielL 11-01-2011 2:05 PM

I think the overall discussion is pretty convoluted. I realize there is an obvious functionality issue, but how can you reasonably argue app over mobile web? I really cannot see the payoff - no updates to download, no cross platform issues to consider, I can't fathom anyone with a restricted budget can consider it. The days of "we need an app" have come and gone. "There is an app for that" is an outdated marketing tagline, no longer necessary for today's model.

JamesH 02-02-2012 4:04 AM

I thought this was a great and informative article. Not sure why there is the negative comments , these are out of place. If you are a small business owner who is frustrated, please don't take it out on a forum like this.

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