November 25th, 2020 • Custom Software Development Resources: Articles

Struggling to decide between a mobile-responsive web app or a mobile app for your software project?  In this article, we will present the benefits and trade-offs of each solution.

What is a mobile-responsive web app?

Simply put, it’s a website you access on your phone that will adapt its content to the width of your device: a small portrait screen, a landscape screen, a tablet, or a laptop screen. The ability of the website to adapt its content to fit the screen on which it is displayed is called “mobile responsiveness”. Most websites today are mobile responsive.

You access web applications by browsing the website directly, or sometimes by tapping a shortcut on your home screen. They typically require you to be connected to the internet, unless specifically designed to work offline as in progressive web apps.

What is a mobile app?

These are applications installed on your phone from the Apple Store, Google Play, Windows Apps, or that were pre-installed on a mobile device at the time of purchase. A few examples include SMS, Maps, Email, Phone, and Calculator. You use those all day long.

You access mobile apps by tapping their icons on your phone. They can work offline without an internet connection.

There are three kinds of mobile apps:

  • Native mobile apps – installed from an app store
  • Cross-platform mobile apps – installed from an app store
  • Progressive web apps (PWA) – installed from a website.

To the user, they all feel the same except for the progressive web app (PWA), which is not to be confused with a mobile-responsive web app.  A PWA is an HTML and JavaScript application delivered by a website that runs on the phone and is designed to look and feel like a mobile app.

For further reading, you can learn what are the differences between a mobile app and a progressive web app.

What is the difference?

A mobile-responsive web app is accessed and used via a web browser, and each time the website is accessed the most recent version of the application is served. There’s nothing to download or install. It’s made of HTML, JavaScript, media (images, videos, fonts), and other classic web technologies. There’s only one version of the website available at any point in time. Most of the processing done by a web app is executed on the remote web server.

A mobile app is installed on your phone and requires manual updates. It must be built specifically for your phone’s operating system such as iOS, Android, or Windows Phone. Because users update their mobile apps at different times and because users have different versions of the same phones, there are always many app versions deployed at any given time. Most of the processing done by a mobile app is done on the phone, and saving is often done on the cloud via a remote web server.

The following list combines a few of the important considerations for choosing between a mobile app and a web app.

 

Web App

Mobile App

  Requires Frontend Programming

Yes

Yes

  Requires Backend Programming

Yes

Depends

  Requires Different Languages for Different Phones

No

Yes

  Requires a Database

Yes

Depends

  Requires a Web Server / API

Yes

Depends

  Requires Internet

Yes

Depends

  Requires Versioning Strategy

No

Yes

  Offers a Personalized User Experience

Limited

Yes

  Access to GPS

Yes

Yes

  Access to Camera

Yes

Yes

  Works Offline

No

Yes

  Sends Push Notifications

Possible

Yes

  Sends Screen Notifications

No

Yes

  Makes Calls

Limited

Yes

  Sends Texts

Limited

Yes

  Access to Phone Files

No

Yes

 

Which costs more?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer – it depends.

In general, developing a mobile app is more expensive than developing a web app for delivering similar functionality because you have to build it twice, usually on Android and for iOS, and you have to build a small web application for providing Rest API access, for all the cloud connectivity stuff or use the platform-specific cloud APIs.  

You can save on the duplicate platform development by using cross-platform technologies which have become very good recently, most notably Xamarin, NativeScript, and ReactNative. Cross-platform solutions allow you to develop once, make small native adjustments for specific platforms, and target all platforms; it offers significant savings.

On the other hand, web apps can become expensive as soon as you need to expand beyond the use of a mobile phone, as the processing load server-side requires more infrastructure.

Which should I use?

Again, it depends. Based on the table above, and the feature you need, you may have a limited choice. Maybe you will need a mobile app, in that case, opt for a cross-platform solution as much as you can. Maybe the mobile on-the-go functionality, while nice, isn’t always necessary, and so you should opt for a responsive web app.

Why you might need both.

Commonly, users expect to continue their activity from their mobile app onto a website, as some complex activities may require the user of a much larger screen or a mouse to be usable. For example, while anyone can read a PowerPoint presentation on a phone, it’s cumbersome to create the presentation directly on a phone and the user will prefer to do that on a desktop.

If you're on the fence about whether a web app, mobile app or PWA are right for your business, give us a call.

 

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