Mobile apps: Native or Web? 18 October, 2013

We usually write web apps in order to sell a product. Often the web app is the product or service we sell. At some point, the question will probably arise: Should we write native mobile versions of our web app. Here are some obvious pros and cons for native mobile apps:
Pros for native apps
1 - Launching an app is usually easier than navigating a browser
2 - You don't have to login every time
3 - You don't wait for script or content downloads, just network calls

Cons for native apps
1 - Apps are harder to update than websites
2 - Development other than web is required (more $ and people)


Under certain circumstances, these pros and cons might not matter. You may be able to save a bookmark on the home screen. Your browser could remember login info for you. Your scripts could be small. You could have continuous deployment. Depending on your site complexity, performance may be the same. Point #1: Not all your users will know-how/want-to/be-able-to bookmark, login, or buy fast devices. Native mobile apps make sense when you are targeting these time-sensitive/budget-conscious customers. That's the customer-resource based reason.

Now, let's look at the rising-competition based reason. Because of the increasing sophistication of browsers and js libraries, a lot of web apps look really good. What then, differentiates your product from a competitor's product? Besides price and the actual idea or feature set, there is UI and UX.

Design is a differentiator. If you believe that good design matters and want a good design, you will have to ask yourself how custom or dynamic your design should be. It's how real and usable things can look. Pixel level UI control is how that's accomplished. Companies have tried to fix this in the web. There's been ActiveX, VML, Browser DirectX, DOM Manipulation, Flash, and Canvas. These were aimed at getting more UI/UX control, some with good frame rates.



So, let's compare UI/UX control on native apps to that of the web using the most direct control mechanisms that users have access to: Canvas Web Elements vs. Custom Android UI Components. Both have pixel level control, but only one is available to every device running that platform. Canvas doesn't work with some browsers, but Custom Android UI Components work with every Android smartphone. Point #2: If you need the extra differentiation in your UI/UX, get more pixel level control. Native mobile apps make sense when you need to differentiate your UI/UX more.

Eventually, mobile OSes will get ironed out and browsers will improve. Everyone will be on fast mobile devices, and have fast connections. Until then however, many native apps just feel awesome when compared to their web counterparts. The only question right now is whether that awesomeness will draw sufficient users to interact with xyz more than a standalone web experience. Hook up some analytics, and you'll get an idea of how you should proceed.

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