Web app vs mobile app: Which should I use?
What to consider when deciding between a web app or a mobile app for your project.
When working with a client some frequent questions we get asked are “should I use a web app or a mobile app?” and “should it be a native app or a hybrid app”? There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. The answer depends on a few factors specific to your project and its requirements. I will outline some of the key differences between the two, the benefits of each and the cost implications.
A push notification is a message that is sent to a user's mobile device by a mobile application that the user has installed. These notifications can be used to alert users to new content or updates within the app, such as a new message, breaking news, or a sale. Push notifications are often delivered in real-time and can be customized to include things like images, sounds, or vibrations to grab the user's attention. However, push notifications are not available on web applications.
One of the main benefits of push notifications is that they can be used to re-engage users with an app. When users receive a push notification, they are more likely to open the app and interact with the content or feature that the notification is promoting. This can be particularly useful for businesses, as it can lead to increased sales or engagement. Additionally, push notifications can also help to keep users informed of important updates or news, without the need for them to open the app or check for updates manually. Furthermore, they increase retention and can help to improve brand loyalty.
The catch to this is that push notifications must be used carefully. If a user is frequently receiving notifications that are not relevant then they may start to find them annoying and this could lead to the user uninstalling your app entirely.
Push notifications are often not a requirement for your application but can be a great addition to help improve user experience. Although they are not available on web applications, there are alternative solutions that often suffice. For example email alerts.
A key benefit of a mobile app is its offline capabilities. When working with a web app you can only access it when you have an internet connection. This can be a particular problem if a user is trying to use your app when they are in an area with bad service or is using a device that relies on WiFi and does not have internet access.
Mobile applications are installed onto the device. This means that they can still run and perform certain actions without connecting to the internet. If your app is able to still function without an internet connection then this can be a very powerful tool. It is also possible to queue requests. This means that even if your mobile app does require an internet connection, requests can be queued and sent off when the device regains internet access.
However, there are some caveats to this. Mobile app development is not straightforward and so integrating a queue system into your mobile app is going to take an app developer some time. This can therefore have some implications on the total cost.
Is it a big deal? More often than not whether its a web app or a mobile app they require an internet connection to store data, so it is not uncommon to see applications not working without it. Not only that, but internet access is becoming much more widespread anyway. Sometimes a simple indication to the user that they are offline is enough.
Personally, I would say offline capability is only a real benefit if your app can perform its duties without internet access. The exception to this would be that you have the budget to implement some more advanced functionality to handle an offline mode. If you don't need an offline mode then this should not sway you to a mobile app instead of a web app.
Mobile apps are developed to run on specific platforms, such as iOS or Android, and have access to the device's hardware, software and capabilities like the camera, GPS, sensors, microphone, and more. This allows them to provide a more engaging experience to users. For example, a mobile camera app can directly access the device's camera and take photos, a navigation app can access the GPS to provide turn-by-turn directions, and a fitness app can access the device's accelerometer to track movement and activity.
Web applications, on the other hand, are limited to the features and capabilities provided by the browser. For example, a web application that is designed to take photos would need to use the device's camera through the browser's built-in features, which would not provide the same level of control and functionality as a mobile app. Similarly, a web application can access the device's location through the browser by using the Geolocation API, but the level of accuracy, granularity and details available is not comparable with a mobile app.
Access to device capabilities is important when you are trying to decide between a mobile app and a web application. For some apps, access to the mobile device functionality is integral to the functionality and therefore it makes sense for it to be a mobile app. For others, the device functionality can be used to improve the user experience or add to the overall seamlessness of the app, but it is not required or always worth the extra cost and app development time.
The user experience (UX) of a mobile app and a web app can be quite different, due to the way they are designed and the platforms on which they run.
Mobile apps are specifically designed for smaller screens and touch-based interfaces. They are typically optimized for use on a single device, such as a smartphone or tablet. This allows for a more seamless and intuitive experience, as the design and layout of the app can be tailored to the specific device and its capabilities. Mobile applications also tend to be faster, smoother, and more responsive than web apps, as they are developed to take advantage of the device's hardware.
Web apps, on the other hand, are designed to be accessed on a wide variety of devices and screen sizes. They are typically optimized for use with a mouse and keyboard, and the layout and design must be able to adapt to different screen sizes and resolutions. They can also bean less performant as they rely on the internet connection, and the experience may vary depending on the quality of the connection.
Play Store/Apple App Store
Mobile apps are typically distributed through app stores, such as the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. These app stores give developers a way to reach a large audience of potential users. When an app is made available on an app store, it can be easily discovered by users through search and browsing. Additionally, the app store's ranking and curation system can be leveraged to promote popular or well-reviewed apps, which can give them greater visibility.
App stores can also provide other features that improve discoverability, such as recommendations, featured apps and charts that show the top apps based on downloads or user ratings. This can make it easier for users to discover and download new apps, even if they are not actively looking for them. Additionally, App stores also provide reviews, ratings and app descriptions to help users decide if the app is worth downloading or not.
However the stores are very crowded places, so it is still a very competitive market when trying to appear higher up in the stores. It is also a lot more work that you need to consider, there are things like creating assets for store pages, writing store page listings, curating required policy documents for each app store and ensuring your app can make it through Apple's strict review system. These additional things take more time and therefore cost more money.
Web applications need to be accessed via a web browser and require the user to know the URL of the application. Unlike mobile apps, web apps don't have a centralized distribution point, which means they aren't discoverable through a single platform or marketplace. Users have to find the web application by searching the web, or through promotions, advertising or word of mouth. This can make it more challenging for web applications to reach a large audience and acquire new users. This is where SEO comes into play. There is an entire industry built around getting websites and web apps higher up in search and making them more discoverable. Meaning there are a lot of options out there for aiding in discoverability, whether it's online tools or SEO professionals. In some cases, you may find that good SEO is more powerful than just being on the app stores, and you don't have to worry about all of the extra work involved in getting your mobile app on the app store.
Another benefit of using a web app is that it is a much easier process to push out updates. Mobile apps require you to generate new builds for both your android app and your ios app, which must then be uploaded to the stores. You then need to create the new release on the stores and submit them for review before they can be pushed out to users. Once they pass review it is not going to be instantaneous that every user is on the latest version, as it is down to the user when they install the updates. On the other hand, when you want to update your web app it is just a case of pushing the update to your hosting service. Once the update is deployed anyone who accesses your web app will be on the latest version.
In the previous sections, we have touched on a few of the factors that can cause mobile applications to be a little more expensive than web applications. It is not always the case but I will reiterate and outline the differences.
The first thing to consider is complexity. Does your app require the use of device hardware? If it is a necessity then you may find that it is more cost-effective to build a mobile application. This is because it is easier for a mobile application to access device hardware (e.g camera or GPS). But, generally speaking, mobile app development is harder than web app development, so if you do not require access to specific mobile device functionality then it will most likely be cheaper to develop a web app. This does not just apply to the initial development phase either, software needs to be maintained and due to mobile app development being more complex, it can mean maintenance costs are also higher.
Hosting costs are another big thing to consider. When you build a mobile app you have the additional costs incurred by the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. This can mean more time is spent pushing updates, curating store assets and making updates to get your app through app store reviews. Whereas a web app is hosted with a provider of your choice. There are countless hosting providers out there so it is a competitive market. This makes it easier to get better deals on hosting. That's not to say web apps are always cheaper to host, as some web apps can become expensive if you are handling very high volumes of traffic, but it is easy to keep track of your traffic with tools like google analytics and google workspace.
If you do decide to go down the mobile platform route, then you must also decide whether you would like to have a native mobile app or a hybrid mobile app. In this case, a hybrid mobile app is significantly more cost-effective. A native application requires you to essentially build two apps, each with its own challenges and knowledge requirements.
To summarise, it is a question that should be researched and considered extensively before you start development. It also requires you to have a good idea of what the requirements are for your app. If you are not sure what your requirements are or if you need a mobile app or a web app, then get in touch with us. At Forward Digital we like to help with the requirements-gathering process and can provide a quote for both a mobile app and a web app, so you can easily compare the costs and differences.