02 Jun 2014

By Owen Williams


There’s a question that gets asked over and over about mobile development and won’t seem to die, “Should I go for a native app or a mobile web one?” Many are aware of both types of apps, but don’t really know how vastly they can differ.

This lingering question has been around ever since it was possible to build applications for iOS and Android devices without having to use tools from either Apple or Google. Solutions like PhoneGap and Sencha allowed developers to build these applications using Javascript, CSS and HTML. This all might sound quite magical, but when it came down to it, the solution was pretty terrible.


A few years ago, Facebook bet its strategy on these mobile web applications becoming the best way to develop for lots of phones. It launched its apps for both iOS and Android as mobile web applications, which stuck around for over three years.

Over time, users came to lament the application more and more as other companies’ native apps showed just how poor Facebook’s experience truly was. It was slow to launch, unresponsive and not at all enjoyable to use. If you were an early iPhone user, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

Facebook eventually admitted that choosing mobile web-based apps was the company’s “biggest mistake” and one that took a significant amount of work to undo. After a year’s work, the company finally released fully native versions of its app in late 2012, which resulted in users consuming two times the amount of content.



So why are mobile web applications utterly rejected by users? C.K. Sample, EVP of Technology and Engineering at Chaotic Moon Studios, thinks it’s because “we’re engineered to understand [touch] better than anything else.” Sample added that “non-native solutions flounder because they’ll always be, even ever so slightly, less performant and less responsive than well-coded native experiences.”

The exodus of apps using the technology speaks to this fact. With companies as big as Facebook and LinkedIn unable to maintain usable mobile web apps with vast pools of development talent, it proves that it’s exceedingly difficult to pull these apps off right.

Even in 2014, companies are shifting from mobile web-based apps to native apps. Wunderlist announced in January that it was also moving from a mobile web architecture to a native app, despite advances in phone and network performance.

Sample says this is partially because “better developers focus on producing better native apps vs. hordes of Internet developers sort-of, kind-of, sometimes trying to build a web-based app.”

When accounting software company Xero announced it was moving away from the mobile web, it said “the lesson learnt over the last 12 months has been that the cost in time, effort and testing to bring an HTML5 application to a native level of performance seems to be far greater than if the app was built with native technologies from the get-go.”

One of the advantages of building a mobile web app is that it can be mostly re-used across platforms. Facebook initially chose web because of this simple fact; it allowed them to target 500 million users and share code across platforms easily. The drawback, of course, was that the experience was terrible for users on both platforms and didn’t cater to the unique needs of users on either.


As mobile operating systems grew and their interfaces went down separate paths, users came to expect apps that were fast, snappy and responsive — with an interface that suited the platform they were using. Mobile web then became complicated, slow and cumbersome.

The reason for this is when using tools like Sencha or PhoneGap, the developer must essentially re-invent the wheel. Native applications provide smooth animations, fast transitions and extremely responsive experiences built right in.

Unfortunately, mobile web is still not able to recreate these types of fluid, responsive applications to the same degree. “The difference is now something that we feel,” said Sample. “App users can tell the difference. They feel it. The mobile web is not quite as natural. And that’s why web-based solutions often fail.”

These types of challenges may be resolved in the future, as the web matures and becomes more mobile-friendly. For now, it’s clear that native application development is far superior to building a mobile web-based application.

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter which platform you choose, native will always be better. The companies that have made these mistakes before are prime examples of why you shouldn’t make the same mistake they did; in a few years time, your company will regret it.