03 Aug

Mobile Web vs. Native Apps

Should I develop a mobile web app or a native application?

A few years ago developers were faced with deciding between building for desktop or mobile first. Now, developers routinely go mobile-first, and many choose to build a native app for either the iOS or Android operating systems. This is reminiscent of the early days of the desktop computer.

Remember when you had to download AOL to access the internet? What about just a few years ago when Adobe products (e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, etc.) were only available for download as desktop applications? And you can’t forget about Quickbooks and every other desktop accounting program!

With vast improvements to the Internet’s infrastructure, the adoption of broadband internet, improvements to consumer computer hardware, and the like, what was once only available as native desktop applications are now accessible as web apps in-browser. Adobe announced Creative Cloud in late 2011 – and even discontinued their desktop downloads, shortly thereafter in 2013. Quickbooks now offers Quickbooks Online with additional support for those clients who choose the SaaS offering over the antiquated desktop version (you know, the one I use!).

Many technology enthusiasts believe the same transition is inevitable on mobile. Mobile traffic has surged over the past few years and shows no signs of stopping. As mobile makes up more and more of a consumer’s time, mobile app usage has continued to dominate the mobile web – shifting from 80% of time on mobile in 2013 to over 86% in H1 2014.

Even if wireless infrastructure improvements enable mobile web apps to support the necessary technology to compete with native applications, will it be enough to change the user behavioral patterns previously formed? More specifically, will the potential benefits of a mobile web app outweigh the established native patterns of mobile users’?

Mobile web apps would offer a number of benefits over native applications – most prominent of which, in my opinion, would be the ability to link between applications and pages within web apps seamlessly – which is afforded to users on desktop and mobile web thanks to the malleable structure links/URLs present. As I’ve discussed previously, mobile developers are working feverishly on building out a solution to link and form communication channels between native applications: e.g. deep linking & alpha apps.

Unfortunately, leading investors believe the current shift from browser based applications to native apps on mobile means the demise of innovation, and I happen to agree. To summarize Chris Dixon’s latest points, the shift will limit innovation because:

i) apps are, by default, listed in app stores by popularity – thus resulting in a “rich-get-richer dynamic that favors the status quo over new innovations.”
ii) app store owners (Apple & Google) control the approval process of new applications, the promotion of apps within the stores, and charge a tax on revenues.

If the future of mobile does see development revert back to mobile web apps, then current challenges facing mobile developers and marketers in the mobile browser will garner additional attention. While I personally like to minimize the current debate of mobile cookies inhibiting the mobile market – a new focus on mobile web apps would bring the issue to the forefront. While in native applications we have static identifiers – Apple’s IDFA and Googles Android ID (or new, AdID) – the mobile web presents an unstable environment where cookies do exist, but have a much shorter shelf-life. Here is a breakdown of mobile cookies per platform:

  • iOS Default Settings Block 3rd Party Cookies
  • Android Accepts 3rd Party Cookies
  • All Platforms Clear Cookies in Cache on App Close or Phone Reset
  • Cookies are Siloed; Inaccessible by other applications and browsers

The inability to have an accurate representation of an individual app user at any given time – and in-between browser sessions – would result in the inability to provide a consistent, personalized experience, un-targeted advertisements, and inaccurate usage analytics.

While facing both infrastructure hurdles and software challenges, many see the inevitable advances in technology resulting in the transition of native apps back to mobile web apps. I do not necessarily agree, but I do see the continued improvement of both native and mobile web environments a worthwhile investment by mobile developers as a whole.

What do you think? Do you believe we will revert – as we did on desktop – to an in-browser environment? Or are native apps, with new features like deep-linking, here to stay?