Native, Web, Hybrid Apps — What’s the Difference?

Jenna Rodrigues
May 12, 2021

Even though we love geeking out on building apps, sometimes we do wish that choosing a development approach could be as easy as saying, “There’s an app for that.”

Why should you care what type of app you’re building? What’s the difference between web, progressive, native, hybrid, and cross-platform apps?

The development approach has a significant implication on the reach, timeline, and cost of your app. Choosing the right one allows you to reach your target audience effectively, reduce the product’s time-to-market, and increase audience engagement without breaking the bank.

Here’s what you need to know about each development approach, so you can have a constructive discussion with your development team and make an informed decision.

What Is a Web App?

A web application is accessed via web browsers over the internet. It offers various functionalities that allow users to perform tasks and interact with the content. Since web apps load in browsers (e.g., Chrome, Safari, Firefox,) they don’t take up much memory or storage, keeping their data within the browser’s cookies or cache.

Most web apps are relatively simple and quick to develop. You can leverage existing templates and frameworks (e.g., Angular, React, and Vue.js) to get a quick start at a relatively low cost. This approach is also great for testing your ideas before investing in a native mobile app (more on that later.)

However, there is a trade-off between cost, timeline, and reach. A simple web app designed for desktop users can be relatively cheap and rapid to launch, but it may not perform well on mobile devices. As more people are accessing content via mobile devices, such a web app could cause you to miss out on traffic and revenue opportunities from these users. That is, unless you implement a design which scales nicely between small and large screens–also known as a responsive design. This will dramatically increase the reach of the application, since all modern personal devices include web browsers which can access it. So too will the budget required to implement this type of web app increase.

What Is a Native App?

A native app is a software application created for either iOS or Android using a specific programming language. Users can search for and download these apps on Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store. You can program a native app to take advantage of the full range of mobile functionalities offered by the respective operating systems.

Native apps deliver the fastest, most reliable, and most responsive user experience. You can match the app’s user interface to the platform’s conventions to minimize the learning curve, encourage adoption, and deliver a seamless experience on each platform. With more users searching for apps on app stores, you can increase discoverability with native apps.

Native apps are costlier and take longer to build. Many developers only specialize in one platform, so you’d likely need to hire two development teams if you want the app to be available for both iOS and Android. It also means that you’ll need to incur the cost of updating two codebases every time you make an update.

What Is a Progressive Web App (PWA)?

A PWA combines the experience of web and mobile applications. Think of it as a site built with web technologies but behaves like an app. When users find your PWA on the web, they can start using it right away without downloading and installing it. Within the Google Chrome web browser on most devices (with the exception of the Chrome app for Apple’s iOS), PWAs can also be installed within the browser itself to offer faster access and additional functionality in the app.

PWAs are discoverable, network-independent, responsive, and relatively easy to deploy. They allow you to take advantage of the large web ecosystem (as opposed to native apps in respective app stores) and deliver a mobile-app-like experience to users via a website. As mentioned, Chrome users can install PWAs, which can even add an app launcher to their home screens, receive push notifications, and use the app offline–a few hallmark benefits of native apps, without building natively.

Although PWAs work well on Android, iOS support is still quite limited. You may not be able to deliver all the functionalities, such as push notifications. PWAs are not discoverable on app stores, which can limit your reach to mobile users. Moreover, installation isn’t always straightforward, so it’s harder to get onto users’ home screens when compared with a native app.

What Is a Hybrid App?

A hybrid app blends web elements with mobile ones and runs in a browser-like component called a webview. After writing an application in web development languages (e.g., HTML, CSS, and JavaScript,) developers can embed the code into a native app using tools like PhoneGap or GoNative to translate the web code into an app that can be deployed to the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. This is sometimes referred to as a “native wrapper” or a “port” of the original web-based application.

You need only create and manage one codebase to make your app available for both iOS and Android. While the intuitive conclusion you might draw is correct–that one single codebase can deliver your app to both iOS and Android–there are nuances which might completely erase any potential efficiency gained from this single-codebase approach.

Tools like PhoneGap and GoNative can take you far–even all the way to a complete implementation for certain limited types of apps–with their pre-built solutions. However, if your app requires something to be done a little bit differently, or to solve a problem that these tools haven’t already natively solved, it can be incredibly costly (if not impossible) to work around those limitations, making two natively built apps a more prudent investment vs a hybrid approach.

What Is a Cross-Platform App?

A cross-platform app development process entails building a single application that can run on different operating systems, so you don’t have to create different apps for each platform. While a cross-platform app may sound similar to a hybrid app, their only similarity is code shareability. It’s important not to confuse the terminology when discussing this with your developer.

Popular Cross-Platform App frameworks include Microsoft’s Xamarin, Facebook’s React Native, and Google’s Flutter. Many cross-platform app development frameworks are designed to achieve the user experience of a native app. Cross-platform apps are low-cost and stable with certain limits. If the MVP feature set of what you’re looking to build is supported by the cross-platform solution, it fits well — but if what you’re looking to do involves bleeding-edge or platform-specific features, cross-platform’s ability to be flexible is lost rather quickly.

It’s more challenging to develop cross-platform apps that match the seamless user experience of native apps. Performance issues are more likely to arise because of integration problems with operating systems. These apps are also more vulnerable to cybersecurity issues compared with native apps, which can rectify security loopholes with frequent platform updates.

Over the past few years, several large companies with complex app ecosystems covering iOS, Android, and the Web have tried and abandoned cross-platform technologies in favor of mostly native development–finding that the promise of long-term efficiency and cost savings did not bear out in their experience. Airbnb has an excellent multi-post series chronicling their experience with React Native that is well worth the read.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe

So, which app development approach should you choose?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and we don’t play favorites here.

Selecting the right approach depends on your business objectives, target audience, app functionality, timeline, budget, and more. From product strategy to audience and revenue, you need to consider all aspects of the app development process and the business side of things to decide which one is the best approach for your product idea.

But you don’t have to go at it alone! Our team of experts has seen (and built) it all, and we’re here to help you make the right decision. Schedule a free consultation, and we’ll get started on your next big thing.

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