The web vs. native app debate - the Financial Times view
Native apps, Hybrid apps, Web apps — the options are full of technical choices. Here we try to explain the options and outline the pros and cons to enable informed decisions when it comes to delivering a great user experience.
There are many makes and models of smartphones but 95% are running the two main operating systems - Apple iOS and Android. The term “native app” refers to an app that has been built specifically for one of these, using the specific programming language of the platform, meaning that you can’t re-use an app written for one operating system on another. The apps are generally distributed through app “stores,” such as the Apple iTunes store for iOS or the Google Play store for Android. In China there are multiple stores providing access to Android apps and you can also distribute apps as downloadable packages (Android only).
A Progressive Web app is often defined as a web site that mimics a native app — giving a great user experience by doing things such as formatting content to suit the screen size of the device, navigating almost instantly between links, working without an Internet connection and being able to swipe through to content.
Web apps are accessed through a Web browser (providing it supports the required functionality) and as such can potentially be used on any smartphone or tablet. On iPhones and iPads, you can also add Web apps to the home screen, giving a bookmark icon, and also allowing the Web app to run full screen, just like a native app.
The latest evolution of these technologies (generally referred to as “HTML5”) and the development of modern Web browsers have given developers the ability to develop an “app-like” experience.
There is also a middle ground between a Web app and a native app, where you can augment an app built on Web technologies with some native technology and distribute through an app store. This is often referred to as a “hybrid” app and can give the best of both worlds.
At the Financial Times, we use this method to support the Android operating system — the core app is the same HTML5-based app that is used for iPhone/iPad — but we then use native functionality to add features Web apps can’t currently offer, such as background downloads of new content.
When discussing Web site and app development, one term often used (and mis-used) is “responsive design,” so it’s worth taking a moment to clarify this term.
Responsive design is a design approach, rather than a particular technology, and applies equally to Web apps, hybrids, native apps, and Web sites. The primary consideration of responsive design is designing and building an app or Web site so it gives a good user experience regardless of screen size and/or orientation.
Because a single Web app supports multiple operating systems, development and test overhead can be significantly reduced vs. developing and testing multiple native apps. Approval process: Certain stores, such as Apple’s iTunes store, require native apps to comply with a set of regulations and to submit to manual review of any new or updated apps. Web apps are not subject to this approval process, giving greater flexibility to release instantly and perform A/B testing. Not being reliant on an app store also removes the possibility that there will be a change of regulations that have a negative business impact.
The number of differences means companies should carefully consider which approach to take, as there is not a clear “one-size-fits-all” winner. Important considerations are availability and cost of staff with required skills. Current strengths, knowledge, and resources within the organisation.
For content driven-apps, developing a robust “API,” or application programming interface, that supports multiple channels (such as Web sites, apps, and third parties) to expose your content is essential.
The future of apps
With the pace of change in the industry, it’s difficult to predict where we’re going to be in 12 months time, never mind beyond that. But we expect both Web apps and native apps to have a fundamental role to play in the long term. At this point, users will be more accustomed to expecting “app-like” functionality as standard from Web sites, whether they are on a mobile device or not.
Both native apps and Web apps can be appropriate for almost any organisation, but this decision should be taken as part of a holistic digital product strategy.