Mobile Apps: Native, Web or Hybrid?

The methods we use to connect with mobile audiences are getting more complex as technologies develop and converge. We've had a look at the pros and cons of the three main options.

Image courtesy of Jürg Stuker

Image courtesy of Jürg Stuker

What are the options?

  • A full native app

  • A full web app

  • A hybrid

What's the difference?

Native apps are built on software that uses a mobile device's operating system. They're downloaded from an app store and installed on to a device.

Web apps are HTML web pages that look and behave like an app in mobile web browsers. There's no software to install, they’re just found by browsing the web from a mobile device.

Hybrid apps also use HTML web pages but through their own built-in browsers. Like native apps, they’re downloaded from an app store and once installed, behave in the same way.

What are the pros and cons?

Native app pros

  • Can use the built-in features of a device's hardware – contacts, camera, GPS, accelerometer, compass etc.
  • Richer functionality (most of which can be used offline) and better performance than web apps
  • Easy for users. They can search for your app, see user reviews and download it from the app store. They can then access it straight from their device's desktop without having to go online.
  • Notifies users when you make updates

Native app cons

  • You’ll need to develop the app several times to cover different phone operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows)
  • A native app needs different coding skills from other web development, so you’ll be adding to your digital marketing cost base and development time

Web app pros

  • Easier to maintain, with just one code base for all mobile platforms
  • Quicker to develop
  • There’s no risk of it breaking when operating systems get updated
  • You don't need to submit it to an app store for approval, so can release it whenever you like
  • Users don't need an app store account to access your app, or to update it when you make changes

Web app cons

  • Users have to be connected to the internet to access web apps
  • Functionality could be limited by the type of browser in the user's device, so limited access to their GPS, camera etc. (This is a moving feast though, as new APIs and modules are developed every day)
  • Not all of the mobile system features are available to web apps. The ability to send users update alerts, for example, is patchy right now, but this should be standardised  next year
  • Performance of more complex functionality won’t be as good as with a native app
  • Supporting multiple browsers can prove expensive
  • It might be harder for users to find your app, as it won’t be listed in any app stores.  And explaining that 'it's an app, but through the web' can be tricky.

Hybrid app pros

  • Behaves the way users expect an app to - they can find and download it from the app store, it sits on their mobile device and they don't always need to be online to use it
  • Most functionality can be delivered using HTML web technology, so it’s quicker and more cost effective for you to develop
  • Software packages mean a web development team can develop hybrid apps in web HTML, then wrap them into the system platform shell, so there’s no need for two development teams and standards.
  • Can give users native app functionality (GPS, camera, alerts etc.) through their devices’ hardware and software

Hybrid cons

  • More development time/cost than a mobile app (but not as much as a full native app)
  • Launch and promotion are reliant on the app store's approval (which is sometimes affected by subjective rulings) and can add to your timeline.