Should I build a native app or a mobile optimized website?

By Bobby Gill on August 6, 2012 / 2 Comments

When you hear of a ‘mobile app’, you are probably envisioning something that you download to your phone via a marketplace like iTunes and then run by tapping on the cute little rectangular icon. Apps like these are called ‘native’ apps, because they live on your phone and run directly atop your smartphone’s operating system (like a Indian boy running across the prarie?). But like Paul Harvey would say, stay tuned, you are going to hear the rest of the story.


HTML Web Apps

However, there is another type of mobile app, one that you do not download, but rather visit in your smartphone’s browser: mobile web apps, or more commonly referred to as “HTML5” apps. A mobile web app is just a web site that has been styled to fit the smaller screen of a smartphone. With the advent of HTML5, mobile web apps can be built to replicate most of what previously could only be done through a native app, like persistent storage. Mobile web apps offer a great advantage over native ones: platform independence. A mobile web app can be viewed using any device with a modern web browser (mmm Internet Explorer doesn’t count). Also, if you have an existing web site and want to create a mobile experience from it, then a mobile app might be the way to go as the effort to modify an existing web app for a mobile browser is much less than it is to write a native app from scratch.

But, mobile web apps come with some pretty severe limitations as they run within a web browser and not directly atop the smartphone’s operating system like a native app. So if you want your app to receive push notifications, use location services, or access the phone’s camera, a mobile web app will not work. In general, mobile web apps are great for experiences that are consumptive in nature, like a cookbook or restaurant review app, but do not work for apps that require access to the smartphone hardware like an Instagram or Spotify.


Hybrid Apps: Can we all just get along?

There is a middle ground emerging between mobile web apps and mobile native apps, appropriately called hybrid apps. A hybrid app tries to be the best of both worlds by using a native written container to host web pages that contain the content for the app. 聽The benefit here is that since it is a native app, you can access the camera, and GPS. With a hybrid, 聽the native container would be a thin wrapper around a set of HTML documents that contain the app’s functionality. 聽The Facebook app is a great example of a hybrid app. The Facebook app is a native written container that renders HTML pages downloaded from the web. But its not all peaches and cream when it comes to hybrids. If you’ve used the Facebook app, you’ll also know that its terribly slow and buggy. The Facebook app appears non responsive at times and is slow to update because it is using the smartphone’s web browser to download and render each page. If it was natively written, the Facebook app would run directly against the hardware and benefit from a considerable real and perceived performance boost. 聽If you want to explore hybrid apps, 聽the Adobe PhoneGap framework is a good place to start. Using PhoneGap, you can build a hybdrid app that can access the GPS and camera while rendering all content via HTML.

Even as a mobile developer, I can’t deny the allure of HTML-based apps. Why should we all go and re-invent new ways to retrieve, render and modify distributed when the HTML (and CSS 3.0) provide a standard way for doing all of that? Plus the platform independence HTML provides opens your app up to many more users than what can be economically achieved with a native app. The HTML model isn’t perfect, mainly due to limitations browser place on what can be accessed from within a HTML document, but its a pretty good place to start.



Good For

Native Apps

聽 聽Speed, run much
faster than web apps.

聽聽Do not require an internet
connection to use.

聽聽Can access smartphone hardware such as GPS,
music player and camera

聽聽Costly to develop, typical app takes 3-6
months to build.

聽聽Requires specialized developer skill set.

聽聽Runs only on single platform.

聽聽Photo-sharing or location-based apps (i.e. Instagram, Highlight)

聽聽Graphics intensive gaming.

聽聽Media playing apps (i.e. Spotify)

Web-based Apps

聽聽Can be used on any device with a modern web

聽 聽Does not require user to download app from

聽 聽Can easily adapt existing web site to be
mobile ready.

聽 聽Easier to find a web developer than a platform

聽聽Requires an internet
connection to be used.

聽聽Cannot access GPS, or camera.

Cannot receive push notifications.

聽 聽Has to be run within a web browser.

聽聽Newspaper, information-sharing apps (i.e.
Financial Times)

聽聽Cookbooks, Restaurant reviews.

聽 聽Building mobile experiences around existing
web sites.


Photo by聽bruce mars聽on聽Unsplash