Apps: Web Apps or Native Apps?

Posted: January 17, 2011 in apps, digital culture, mobilelearning

As the tide continues to shift toward mobile devices and the mobile web, devices have become more of a means to an end rather than the end itself. By this, I mean that devices are providing the platform for software apps that people are using to customize their devices to create a more personalized experience. While there is no doubt that connection to the Internet through mobile broadband is critical, the debate now is whether native apps or web apps will rule supreme. Each have their own benefits and pitfalls – let’s look at a few.

Web Apps

Benefits: In my view, there are two key benefit to web apps that make them superior to native apps. The first is that one only requires one native app – a mobile web browser. Leveraging the cloud, web apps make it unnecessary to have a device with tons of built in memory. So long as the device can connect to the internet using a modern mobile web browser, the user can connect to content on the web and save information using online services. Being able to connect to online services and saving content online leads directly to the second benefit of web apps: the ability to access content from multiple devices. While having a mobile device allows anyone to take their content with them, sometimes it is impossible or impractical to use their mobile devices. As a result, by using web apps, anyone can connect to their content from wherever they are, using whatever device they happen to be using. Content saved this way is free from the constraints of any one device.

Drawbacks: The major drawback to webapps is their complete reliance to constant Internet connectivity. While continuous mobile broadband connectivity is available in most highly populated areas around the world, it is not the case that it is available everywhere. Traveling in the country and out of range of a cell tower? Traveling on a subway underground? Is the building you find yourself in weakening the signal to and from the cell tower and lacking wireless internet? If anyone with a huge reliance on web apps run into any of these issues and loses connection to the Internet, then access to all content is gone. Not being able to save content locally creates an over-reliance on Internet connectivity and it is not uncommon for a mobile device to lose connection to the Internet. Therefore, it is not always assured that one will have access to their content when they need it most.

Native Apps

Benefits: The major benefit of native apps is that they can be integrated fully within the operating system of the device. This increases simplicity for the user in that one can use the same set of commands regardless of which app they are using. In addition, the apps can be designed to be used both online or offline. This is an advantage in that one’s content can be always available, regardless of whether the device is connected to the Internet or not.

Drawbacks: One major drawback is that devices have limited storage – only so many apps and so much content can be saved on any one device. Another major drawback is that if the native app does not have an accompanying web app, then one’s content is locked to the device and an only be accessed by that one device. Forgot the device at home? Lose your device? If so, the content on those devices become inaccessible.

So which type of app reigns supreme? It really depends on one’s preference and usage pattern. Ultimately, what may reign supreme are hybrid apps that are both native apps and web apps. This would ensure that content remains available regardless of Internet connectivity and still accessible through other devices by saving copies in the cloud.

Comments
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob De Lorenzo. Rob De Lorenzo said: New blog post – "Apps: Web Apps or Native Apps" – http://j.mp/fUVq84 #mlearning […]

  2. geoff stead says:

    Hi Rob – some good points here.

    I run a mobile learning development team, and we spent a lot of time inhabiting this world, juggling to find the correct balance between different mobile technologies.

    You did miss a couple of critical dimensions, though:

    Web Apps: one of the exciting things about the emerging HTML5 standard, is that you can configure key sections of your website to download all at once, and then work offline. The early mobile websites did this (WAP) and it has now moved into the mainstream. This partially mitigates against your “always online” point.

    Native Apps: One other big benefit of going native, is better performance (power use / battery life) that the equivalent interaction delivered via the browser as a web app. Your phone is working a little bit harder to do the same task. Not a lot more, but maybe enough to make a difference to a day spent learning?

    • Thanks Geoff for adding your ideas to this post. I was not aware of the the ability to configure a website to download content all at once to a mobile device within HTML5. I’d like to see how this works in practice as I wonder whether this would be useful for accessing static content only (i.e. a Wikipedia article) or whether dynamic content (one requiring user interaction) can be downloaded in the same way as well. Regardless, downloading material beforehand and accessing later, while extremely useful, is not effective if we employ a “just-in-time” learning approach where student research, discover, and post information to and from the Internet when they need it. In addition, there is really no way for students to know what content they will need from the Internet until they need it.

      With regards to you native apps point – great point. Being able to reduce device activity is a great way to conserve battery power allowing students to use the device for longer periods of time.

  3. Nicola says:

    Hi Rob, this is very interesting – it will also be interesting to see in terms of context too – in addition to the environmental considerations etc. On C Enrique Ortiz’s blog – he has done a few posts around this topic e.g. http://weblog.cenriqueortiz.com/mobility/2007/02/20/the-future-of-the-web-and-mobile/ and also http://cenriqueortiz.com/images/comparing-mobile-apps-browser-runtime-local.png,

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