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The Mobile Strategy Dilemma: Native Apps vs. Web Apps

Consider this statistic: by 2018, US mobile and tablet commerce will top $293 billion – that’s 54% of total eCommerce sales. (Forrester)

The shift to a mobile-first world has been rapid and unpredictable. As a result, brands have struggled to keep pace with new technology and changing user behavior. The stakes are high and every decision has a widely felt ripple effect. It is imperative that a business choose the right mobile strategy to be in a position for continued success.

One of the biggest mobile strategy decisions a business will face involves the type of mobile application: to built native mobile apps or go all-in on the web app experience.

Native apps v. Web apps?

Since terms can be used loosely, let’s start with some basic definitions.

Native apps are developed for a specific device and operating system. These apps downloaded by the users directly from an app store. Think: the Zappos iPhone app.

Web apps are broader in scope. They consist of any software that runs in a web browser, mobile or otherwise. Any website that includes interactive elements can be considered a web application. Think: accessing in a mobile browser like Safari.

(Click here for a more detailed side-by-side comparison)

What’s best for your business?

Whichever option you choose will involve significant investment. Choosing native will require net-new app development for at least two platforms (iOS and Android), along with the tacit acknowledgment that a number of customers will still go to your web application no matter how great the native experience is. Staying with a web app may be a smaller investment in the short run, but unless you’re one of a few industry leaders already leveraging the latest and greatest in methods and techniques, you’re in for a pretty much constant battle with your competitors for growing and optimizing your shopping experience. Some other considerations:

Pros of Native Apps

  • Specific build for an OS makes app fast and easy to use
  • App store support improves safety & security guarantees
  • Easy access to device features (e.g. iPhone camera)

Pros of Web Apps

  • Easier to maintain via common programming languages
  • Do not require app store approval or support
  • Immediately accessible by users, no download is required

Cons of Native Apps

  • Can also be expensive to develop
  • Development for multiple mobile platforms is a challenge (iOS v. Android)
  • Maintenance on multiple platforms is tricky
  • Rely on approval from an app store
  • Security must be manually implemented; many apps have been found to store and/or transmit personal user information (including passwords and even credit card data) insecurely.

Cons of Web Apps

  • Must account for a variety of browsers and viewports
  • Limited access to device features
  • More difficult to create a fast experience

The Right Choice? It’s All Dependent on User’s Context

A business must always recognize the context of mobile users, then develop a mobile strategy accordingly. Take, for example, the success of American Airlines’ native app. A major airline benefits from having a base of loyal customers who will gladly download an app knowing they’ll use it again and again. Plus the context of an airline traveler is predictable. App users want to make reservations, access boarding passes, check gate changes, contact customer service, and little else. Thus American Airlines can simplify a traveler’s mobile moment and deliver an excellent user experience with a native app.

However, for another business, the flexibility of a web app may be more suitable. Web apps have lower barriers to access for consumers, meaning an emerging business without a large, loyal customer base will be better able to get new customers in the door, faster. Also, if the company provides a number of different products or services (or a few highly complex ones) the web experience simply makes more sense: if you end up with a bloated native app that serves a number of different purposes, it’s probably not an improvement over the more familiar web experience.

Looking long term

We believe web apps will win out for most businesses in the long run. Web technology is constantly improving and will eventually reach the point where choosing the web does not mean losing any performance or functionality, negating the major advantages of more powerful native apps. In fact, the lines between native apps and web apps are already blurred. Google has leveraged massive resources to curate seamless transitions between the two.

Whatever path you choose, the key is to always optimize for the end-user experience. It’s easy to get caught up comparing methods based on the merits of technology itself, but try to resist those discussions in favor of doing extensive testing and consideration of what users prefer.

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