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Mobile Web vs Native App: Give It a Rest

Posted Mar 28, 2011 (updated Mar 28, 2011)

Cage Match

Oy. While it's fun to see the phrase HTML5 make its way into mainstream headlines, it's off-putting to see it fuel the fire in a conflict that isn't really a conflict in the first place. The New York Times heralds that HTML5 Is Breathing New Life Into the Web, noting that the web is "slipping" versus native apps but is "poised for a comeback":

THE rivalry between the worlds of the Web and native applications, analysts say, is set to play out over the next couple of years. There are strong advocates in each camp, even within companies. Google, for example, straddles the two worlds, with its Android team as well as its developers of HTML5 technology.

Sundar Pichai, vice president for product management for Google’s Chrome browser, is betting on the triumph of HTML5. “In the mobile world, the dominant model is native apps,” Mr. Pichai concedes, but he adds that the real competition is just beginning. “As these ecosystems evolve,” he says, “I think the incredible advantages of the Web will prevail.”

Now I'm hardly above making hay from this purported death match. As part of the Web App Masters Tour, I'm giving a talk titled "Cage Match: Mobile Web vs Native Apps." (Luke Wroblewski shared his generously detailed notes from my talk.) But my dirty little secret—spoiler alert!—is that I don't really think it's a matchup at all. Providing a great experience almost certainly means that you'll do both. We're all in this together, friends.

Build a mobile web app or website

Creating a mobile website is table stakes, basic cost of entry, and every company and service should have one. Your website should be viewable on any device, and since more and more people are using their phones as primary browsers, that means your website or app should be awesome on those devices too. The web buys you universal access to every device, no matter what type of phone people use. It's a no-brainer that you should build for the web. The web is the hub for everything. There's a growing expectation that our content will follow us seamlessly from device to device. Whether you access that content in a traditional browser or a native app, you're almost certainly accessing it via the web. Building a web app simply puts your app in its natural habitat. Everyone should do it.

But here's the thing. We have an app culture right now. In user interviews, I find time and again that people say they use the web primarily for quick lookups, while they use apps for doing. For tasks, games, or recurring activities, people instinctively turn to an app store. And there are good reasons for that. First, it's certainly convenient: marketing, operating systems, and even the hardware nudges people toward plugging into app stores, where payment is also a breeze. And by and large, native apps tend to deliver better experiences, too. Don't get me wrong: you can do amazing things with HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. (Aside: HTML5 and CSS3 are mature on mobile, where all the major platforms use cutting-edge browsers. If you've been holding back on learning the new stuff, waste no more time. Get on it.) But while the web is closing the gap—and quickly—for interface slickness and user experience, I believe native apps will always have an edge in that department. They'll always hold greater potential for a better, sharper experience that fits in better with the overall operating system.

Build flagship apps

It's not a matter of either-or, however. Do both. Build a mobile web app for everyone but consider flagship native apps to reward your best customers. Choose the platform that fits the personality and demographics of your best companies, and build an app that sings for them. For the foreseeable future, I believe the best way forward is a common-denominator mobile website—with graceful degradation so that a majority of mobile users are served—paired with one or three audience-appropriate native apps.

Fact is, we all use both. According to Comscore, 37 percent of mobile users browse the web, and 35 percent use downloaded apps. Presumably those are basically the same people, since about 35 percent of mobile users have smartphones. So it's not that one is winning over the other in terms of usage; we use both.

Making the Mobile Web Better

Still, there are many ways that web apps could provide better experience, and nearly all of those rely on the OS makers to start treating web apps on equal footing with native apps. Trapping web apps in the browser doesn't help, while native apps get first-class placement on home screens. The distributed nature of web apps means that you can't find them in app stores, where people are trained to look for apps. And payment remains a problem for web apps. These are all areas where platform vendors should help make all of our lives better—as both developers and users. As a community, we need to press for this.

But let's not shoot ourselves in the foot by getting tangled up in this "web vs native" thing. Our future is going to be one of many, many thin clients talking to smart web services. Some of those clients will be accessed via HTML, others via native code. I love the "one web" ideal but I also believe in the very real value (despite its high cost of entry) in crafting carefully tailored and high-performance interfaces for specific devices and operating systems.

As makers, we have to make rooms in our hearts, budgets, and schedules for both. Let's call off the death-match hoax, grab a beer, and then go make some awesome together.

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22 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Mar 28, 2011 9:07pm [ 1 ]

And one of the best (and most accessible) ways to design mobile apps is by using HTML5 and native iOS or Android UI and UX — then you get the best of both worlds. That's what web designers can do today with a mobile code library like NimbleKit (think jQuery for native apps). This also makes it extremely efficient to transition to web apps from your native app code base, should you decide that's also a good strategy.

Mar 29, 2011 11:13am [ 2 ]

Adding to that I think (native) Apps are the first pieces of software ever to utilize the "device specific" hardware (like gyroscope, movement detection, camera etc). Browser based applications are not very capable doing this (at least for now). So the deciding factor whether to create an app or not will be the level of sophistication needed inside an application. And of course hitting the mobile website of a company should deliver a "tapworthy" experience.. in any case.

Steven Hoober
Mar 29, 2011 12:05pm [ 3 ]

In user interviews, I find time and again that people say they use the web primarily for quick lookups, while they use apps for doing.

Like all user interviews, I am not sure anything they say is true :) I have seen this exact communication, and then watched as user went and got something like weather (for which apps exist) from the mobile web instead of their app (also seen a /lot/ of confusion when you talk idle screen bookmarks, as to whether something is an app or site).

So, I was just wondering if this is a perception thing (much as your whole point that the NYT likes to make a momentous fight out of any tech disparity) or something real in your opinion.

Brian Gillespie
Mar 29, 2011 1:08pm [ 4 ]

If you're a consumer, this isn't a cage match, it's a nice choice. If you're Google, you're thinking native apps are to Google like Google Search was to the Yellow Pages. A troubling trend that spells disruption to the Google business model.

Mar 29, 2011 1:16pm [ 5 ]

I'd like to whole-heartedly agree with this article and the first 2 comments, and would like to point out that people who say web allows for "write-once, deploy everywhere" is forgetting about making an excellent version for smartphones, which, right now as was mentioned, is way better in app form.

However, I do want to stress and make sure that developers are NOT going out there making apps that are on an island and whose data is locked into the app. The web version of all apps is a MUST. The data 100% has to be accessible anywhere.

Brendan McKena
Mar 29, 2011 1:32pm [ 6 ]

I think we can relate local devices and the cloud, to appliances and the power grid.

Both have their values, each without the other, quite useless.

Certainly, the growth potential is with the cloud, as everyone already has "appliances"(macs/pc/iPhone/blackberry) and are wondering how they can "do" more.

Apple is in a tough spot being champions of the appliance space, and rumors that ios5 and iphone5 may be late. But when ios5 cokes, it'll have deeper voice recognition, and cloud integration,(apple bought a company called whose cloud music player was five times better that amazons) and charged 0, while amazon wants you (an individual) to pay $1000 for 1tb of cloud space per year(google only charges $250 for the same). Apple may be able to absorb this cost for it's users.

As apple users, some of us have no obstruction to getting to the cloud, virus free, stable appliances, the iPhone in my hand is a nice essentially transparent interface to the cloud, nokia/android/blackberry and windows phones not as nice or pleasant I think.

But a good cloud makes up for a crappy appliance(see salesforce running on a pc) (or google docs running on a pc), but a great appliance with a great cloud is super, that's why benioff marches around the world showing how he runs his business off chatter for iPad.

Mar 29, 2011 2:17pm [ 7 ]

I have been preaching to people for years that both mobile web and native apps play complimentary roles in a fully-integrated web strategy, and that both are necessary to provide the best contextual user experience in any environment. It ss great to see an article like this support the concept. I will be quoting your article in many conversations...

I wrote this a couple of weeks back, as QR codes (an app leading to a mobile web experience) are opening a lot of doors and discussions on the role of the mobile web:

I look forward to a great conversation with you sometime!

Best, Jonathan Thaler Founder, When I'm Mobile

Mar 29, 2011 3:16pm [ 8 ]

I’m not in the tech industry but I do believe in the power of good design. In my experience good design is about depth, not breadth, which is why I believe apps resonate so well with consumers. And while I agree that web apps can be really useful and have their place I suspect they will always trail behind native apps because one size never really fits all devices. But as you say, this still doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition (it’s more like both/and). Users are becoming more sophisticated and want many ways to access their data. They don’t care about software design ideologies. They care about simple, easy to use options that offer lots of flexibility. That’s what makes Netflix’s and Pandora’s approaches so brilliant.

CF Gurney
Mar 29, 2011 4:05pm [ 9 ]

I agree that it is NOT and either/or argument. Organizations must have a basic web presence that renders well on the devices their visitors/customers use. Native apps are terrific for specific purposes, but not for the basic landing page for the majority of websites. Use native apps to extend the brand or business model where appropriate. But be sure to remember that "mobile device" is not just iOS or Android. Millions are using BlackBerry and even feature phones with a data plan. Understand your customers and design for their needs.

Andrei TImoshenko
Mar 29, 2011 4:07pm [ 10 ]

Brendan McKena's analogy of apps and the web to appliances and the grid is interesting in one further way. Namely, after about a century of almost absolute centralization, the electrical grid is decentralizing into the smart grid (localised production through, say, solar cells on roofs, localised storage in the batteries of electric vehicles, smart appliances, etc.).

With talk of the cloud and thin clients, however, many people want the web to centralise. Asking why run a personal server when you can rent a part of Amazon's cloud is like asking why install solar cells when you can 'rent' the electricity-generating capacity of your regions mega power plant.

One of these trends has to be wrong...

Mar 29, 2011 5:29pm [ 11 ]

Do you want the best or do you want to make do? Native apps are the best there is because they get the closest to the hardware. Web sites are in reality a "hack", a "fudge" or a "slight of hand" that has for the last 10 years or so been an easier option for developers than native software. Web apps try to mimic native apps and because of moores law it has been just about worthwhile. Now moores law is reversed back 10 yrs with phones and the reality of how web apps are just hacks is hitting us again.

The reality is that web apps have only really suited the developer and not the consumer. The developer wants less deployment issues and portability between devices in order to do less work and make more money. Its got nothing to do with the benefits for the consumer. Now that the consumer can see the massive difference between the native app and the web app they are overwhelmingly using the eyes and going for the native app every time.

I'm not so sure that with mobile devices web apps will become the standard again. The space is too competitive for substandard web apps like gmail to compete with real connected native apps. It's going to take years to catch up.

Mar 29, 2011 8:08pm [ 12 ]

"But while the web is closing the gap—and quickly—for interface slickness and user experience, I believe native apps will always have an edge in that department. They'll always hold greater potential for a better, sharper experience that fits in better with the overall operating system."

Hah. You'd think by 2011 people would have learned not to say "always" about anything related to computers. :-) might be a tiny bit better if it were a native app, but the difference is so minor that the convenience of being on the web far outweighs it. Even Google Maps is a web app for non-mobile users. This pendulum is swinging towards making even more things web apps: music, movies, chat, email. Pretty much if it doesn't involve heavy 3D, it's already dying on the desktop. Mobile is next.

Daniel Odio
Mar 29, 2011 8:31pm [ 13 ]

Josh, I agree 100% with "I find time and again that people say they use the web primarily for quick lookups, while they use apps for doing."

I recently did a screencast on where I saw mobile headed by 2015 and talked about this (tired) debate. I specifically cover seven points that I believe will make mobile way bigger than people realize:

  1. Data Mashups = Magic
  2. Location Layer Grows Up
  3. Peripherals Get Smart & Connected
  4. Software Rules the Cutting Edge
  5. Information: Pull to Push
  6. Android + Commoditized Tablets
  7. Social + Mobile = Killer Combo
Mar 30, 2011 3:39am [ 14 ]

Native apps are not the Web, they are the Internet. The Web and the Internet are not the same thing. The Web is only 20 years old, while the Internet is much older. How did we use the Internet before the Web was created? With native apps for email, FTP, and so on. Many still use a native Mac or Windows email app today, and have done so throughout the entire life of the Web.

An iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, or Flash app is entirely free to use the Internet. That doesn't make them part of the Web. To be part of the Web, they have to be Web apps, they have to be universal, platform-independent and device-independent. They have to run everywhere. No Flash, no Java, no Cocoa, no Silverlight, because those do not run everywhere. What runs everywhere today is detailed in the HTML5 specification, and that is why it is so important. It not only says what is part of the Web, but defines what is not. Don't pretend your Flash app is part of the Web. Adobe co-authored the HTML5 spec, thru had their chance to include Flash, but demurred.

So Web and native apps co-exist happily on the Internet because they are a yin yang. When you want universality, you make or use a Web app, in spite of the limitations in power that come from that. When you want power, you make or use a native app, in spite of the limitations in universality. Saying you should only make one or the other is totalitarian. A key part of Apple's success is they provide the best native app environment and the best Web app environment, and users and developers are free to choose. Microsoft for many years sabotaged their Web app environment to boost their middling native environment and got stuck in 2001 forever. Google provides substandard Web apps and no native apps, just a substandard Java. Ultimately, only native and Web apps matter. C and HTML5, because that is the best of both worlds.

The French have a saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Running Safari and Mail in 2011 on iOS is very much like running WorldWideWeb and Mail in 1990 on NeXT. It's the same kernel and even the same Mail app. I can get my email in Safari, too, that is a major innovation, but it didn't kill my mail app. We have always had native apps on the Internet and likely always will. Even as the Web grows more powerful and adopts thongs like WebGL. I like being able to run both Facebook (HTML5 Web app) and GarageBand (native C app) on my iPad. You can't transplant those apps to the other environment without killing them.

Dan Cornish
Mar 31, 2011 11:09am [ 15 ]

We have been building enterprise apps for years. About two years ago, we built a native iPhone app. It took us about 9 months to build it and get it approved for the app store. Recently we have decided to abandon all native app for mobile devices and go the HTML5. The web is viewed as a common platform for application development and a way away from the tyranny of the platforms and their sdk. Why should mobile devices be any different. I have a more detailed post on my blog.

Rick Arter
Apr 4, 2011 1:49pm [ 16 ]

Couldn't agree more with your sentiments Josh. Love the summation...let's "grab a beer, and then go make some awesome together"!!!

Jun 17, 2011 5:00am [ 17 ]

Great article. Take a look at this framework :

Jun 17, 2011 3:54pm [ 18 ]

Its gonna be nothing compared to the next big cage fight:

Tablet Cage fight coming soon...

Nov 7, 2011 4:09pm [ 19 ]

Hilarious picture choice for the battle! It's going to be a tough combat.

Jan 19, 2012 1:46am [ 20 ]

i love to make make application and again 1 more interesting post related to it. hey thanks for sharing this

Quagnitia is a leading service provider of IT solutions and services, committed to assist businesses meet their challenges and business objectives since nearly a decade.iphone app development india

John MacDonald
Apr 25, 2013 7:23am [ 22 ]

Interesting article (blog, question). You can find new research on this topic here:

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