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A stand of smartphones

When to Choose a Native Mobile App

Part 2 – Responsive Web App vs Native Mobile App vs Progressive Web App

If you have an idea for a digital product, you may be wondering if you should build a responsive web app, a native mobile app, or a progressive web app. Is one option inherently better? What are the pros and cons? This is part 2 of a three-part series unpacking the reasons to choose one platform over another. Let’s dive into native mobile apps.

If you haven’t read part 1 yet, it has a great introduction to each option along with a quick comparison chart: When to Choose a Responsive Web App

Read all three parts to compare app types:

  1. When to Choose a Responsive Web App
  2. When to Choose a Native Mobile App (this article)
  3. When to Choose a Progressive Web App

TL;DR – If your top priority is to provide a high level of specialized capability, especially for a specific mobile device like Android or iPhone, a native mobile app is likely the best option for building your digital product.

A native mobile app is an app created specifically for one particular mobile platform such as iOS, Android, or Windows. Native mobile apps are built using programming languages and tools unique to each platform: Swift or Objective-C for iOS, or Kotlin, Java, and C++ languages for Android.

Advanced Capabilities

Choose a native mobile app when your project requires a high level of hardware or software integration.

Native apps can access all of a device’s hardware and software features. For example, unlike responsive web apps (RWAs), native mobile apps can integrate directly with a specific mobile device’s GPS for geofencing, access light and proximity sensors, or access advanced camera APIs (e.g. for scanning QR codes).

iphone phone lens

High Performance

Choose a native mobile app when you need advanced performance.

Native mobile apps are optimized for a specific platform. Because of this specialization, they can provide a higher level of processing power for things like large videos or games with lots of animation. This difference is especially pronounced when there is limited or no access to an internet connection. Native mobile apps are downloaded onto a specific device and can usually function even when there is no internet access.

Advanced Security

Choose a native mobile app when you require custom security measures.

A native mobile app offers security beyond the typical HTTPS encryption available with an RWA. If you are developing a banking product that requires secure authentication and verification of your users, or need to meet strict HIPAA requirements, a native mobile app is likely a better option than a responsive web app.

phone with lock on the screen

Discoverable Via App Store

Choose a native mobile app when the people you want to reach will look for your app in an app store.

Native mobile apps live in app stores like the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. If your research shows that the people you want to reach typically look for the type of content you will provide in app stores, or if you want to build your marketing plan around app stores, then a native mobile app is a better choice than a responsive web app which is not listed in app stores.

On the other hand, a responsive web app with PWA enhancements can be listed in the app store. Additionally, building a marketing campaign around an app store can be expensive, and the tools to search for apps in the stores are limited.

phone showing app store with the text new to the app store in one section

Higher Development & Maintenance Costs

Don’t choose a native mobile app when you want to keep short and long-term costs down.

Native mobile apps require a unique codebase for each platform. For example, if you want to make the same native mobile app available on both Android and iOS devices, you need to build one codebase for Android and a separate codebase for iOS. Each codebase requires different proprietary technologies, and likely requires separate teams of developers to build and maintain each platform.

Frameworks like React Native and Flutter allow you to share a significant amount of your codebase, but come with constraints, and result in an experience that may not feel as native for users. To take advantage of the more advanced features or platform-specific expectations, you may still need to write separate code for each platform.

Due to separate codebases and proprietary technologies, it is frequently more expensive to reach the same range of people with a native mobile app compared to a responsive web app.

Lengthy Development

Don’t choose a native mobile app when it’s a priority to make your app available to users quickly.

Because native mobile apps require a separate codebase for each platform you want to support, development generally takes longer than it does to develop a single codebase for a responsive web app. Additionally, each app store has its own set of requirements in order to publish an app, and these can be complex. Wait times for app store approval to publish or update the app can be lengthy as well.

Not Discoverable Via Search Engines

Don’t choose a native mobile app when the people you want to reach will look for your content with a search engine.

Unlike responsive web apps, search engines don’t index native mobile apps. If your research indicates that people frequently use search engines to search for the type of content you offer, an RWA may be a better choice. Alternatively, you could build a marketing website for search engines to find, which simply introduces your app and links people to the appropriate app store for download. (A separate marketing website will further increase the design and development costs.)

Limited Reach

Don’t choose a native mobile app when you want to reach a broad audience across devices.

Because it takes longer and costs more to reach the same range of people with a native mobile app than with a responsive web app, and because native mobile apps offer less backward compatibility, the number of people who can access a native mobile app will likely always be more limited than the number of people who can access a responsive web app. Additionally, a native mobile app is limited[1] to mobile devices. To provide access to your content on a laptop or desktop, you would need to develop separate native desktop software or a responsive web app.

A native mobile app excels in performance and security, and provides the most advanced level of integration with specific devices. On the other hand, it tends to be the most expensive to build and maintain compared to the other types of apps – especially responsive web apps – and the range of people it can reach is more limited. If you need a balance of expense, reach, and special capabilities, a progressive web app might be the right answer for your project. We’ll look at the pros and cons of progressive web apps in the next part of this series.

Is a progressive web app right for your digital project? Read more about When to Choose a Progressive Web App.

  1. Native mobile apps are limited to mobile devices, with the exception that native iOS apps can now run on newer Macs. ↩︎

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