Native Apps versus Mobile Web – Who Has the Advantage?

Nathaniel Sheetz
Senior Product Manager – Task & Communications Management

Native app versus mobile web

These days, everyone is considering mobile technology, and it’s not hard to see why. The difference in productivity and customer service between an employee sitting at a computer and one walking the sales floor is huge, and the cost of devices continues to decline. More and more, the question is not if mobile technology should be adopted, but how.

The answer to the how question, unfortunately, is rarely simple. Companies must select from a variety of mobile devices, ensure that their networks can handle the increased traffic, and work with software vendors to provide simple and effective tools that are optimized for the new platform.

Within this third category of mobile-optimized software, however, are two distinct approaches for solution delivery. Should the tool come in the form of an app installed on the device (“native app”), or should users navigate to a web-based tool using the device’s internet browser (“mobile web”)? Let’s look at four of the biggest factors that play a role in making this decision – ease of use, device functionality, device integration and release strategy.

Ease of use. The user experience is of paramount importance – if the interface is confusing, slow or otherwise difficult, employees will simply refuse to adopt the solution.

Most of us are already comfortable with the concept and use of native apps – we have mobile devices with dozens of installed apps, whether for banking, shopping, social media or entertainment. But we are also accustomed to the use of mobile websites, as we use our devices’ internet browsers to search and surf the internet. From the user’s perspective, a well-designed native app and a well-designed mobile website are often equally user-friendly. Result: Tie.

Ability to leverage device functionality. In this category, we consider what the device itself can do, and which capabilities we want to leverage as we use the solution. In this area, mobile web is at a distinct disadvantage, because of the security controls imposed on web browsers – it wouldn’t be good if any random website could make your device vibrate or save data to it without permission.

On the other hand, here the native app shines. When properly designed, it can be granted access to device functionality like alerting (device notifications, audible alerts and vibration). It also can take advantage of the device’s memory, so that if users lose their internet connections, their status in the system can be preserved until the connections are restored. Result: Native wins.

Device integration. Every day, it seems, we find that mobile devices can do even more than before. Cameras, dual cameras, barcode scanners, and card readers are just the beginning. But even so, sometimes it’s necessary to integrate with external devices to meet a business need.

A great example of this is in the realm of food safety: temperature compliance checks. To capture the temperature of food products, a probe or scanner must be used, and should seamlessly connect to the user’s mobile device. By its nature, this integration is accomplished by running software on the mobile device – which usually means a native app of some kind.

Granted, the mobile web option is still feasible in such scenarios; it simply requires the installation of a lightweight, low-maintenance integration app, which will allow the mobile website to capture information from the external equipment. Nonetheless, the native app wins here too – if app installation is required at all, there’s little downside to installing the complete native app. Result: Native wins.

Release strategy. So far it looks like a clear win for the native app, but now we come to one of strengths of mobile web – it’s simple to maintain. Using an internet browser to access the solution, users are assured of always seeing the most up-to-date version of the system – they are never prompted to install anything.

This also simplifies the lives of those in the information technology department, since software upgrades will take place centrally – there’s no need to push periodic updates to hundreds or thousands of mobile devices. Plus, this reduces the need for expensive device management solution to track and update apps across the chain.

That said, the native app has some merits here. If properly implemented, upgrades can be done through a major app store (like Apple’s App Store or the Goolge’s Play store), and critical updates can be made mandatory. Alternatively, if a device management system is already in place, it may be straightforward for corporate information technology to push app updates. Result: Mobile web wins.

Which is best for you?

Of course, the decision of which implementation strategy is “best” depends on each company’s circumstances. For those just beginning a mobile rollout, and not needing device integration, the mobile web solution may make sense. For others, who might already have a device management system and numerous apps deployed chainwide, a native app may be the obvious choice.

Either way, it’s an advantage to choose a vendor that supports both options. Not only does this make it possible to switch strategies if corporate circumstances change, but it also allows for a hybrid approach, in which some devices (perhaps corporate-managed) use the native app, and others (perhaps personal) use mobile web.

Thus, it’s worth examining all the options that prospective vendors offer. Ask for demonstrations of both native app and mobile web, and find out if any major features are not available on one or the other. Consider your company’s circumstances, and which implementation strategy best suits your mobile goals.