Native app vs. progressive web app (PWA): Everything you need to know

Anne Verhoeven

Sep 11, 2019

With progressive web apps (PWAs), developers have another opportunity to optimize the quality of their user experience. By seamlessly serving web pages in a user’s browser, users can access a mobile app with ease, which has been proven to increase engagement and session time. For example, Tinder found that implementing its PWA halved the loading time when compared to the native app. It also saw improved session times with PWA, and increased engagement for both swipes and messages. Similarly, Pinterest users spend 40% more time on the company’s PWA than on their mobile website, with a core engagement increase of 44%.

Some developers still opt to build a native app based on advantages that cannot be replicated with a PWA. Each developer’s scenario will be different depending on their app’s function, so it’s critical for developers to look at the pros and cons of each app type. This ensures you are spending resources on a solution that will best serve your users and enhance your app’s overall performance. In this guide, we’ll give an overview of what native apps and PWAs have to offer, and share the insights you need to choose which app type is best suited to you.

What is a native app?

Native apps are applications that have been built for specific software, coded in a particular programming language. This allows them the app to optimally function on an operating system while making use of that system’s tools and frameworks.

By choosing to build a native app for a particular hardware, it’s possible to incorporate the unique capabilities of that hardware. This means a native app is usually developed twice, so users have access regardless of their preferred device. For example, a native app can be coded in Java (for Android) or Objective C (for iOS). They can then be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play onto a device.

What is a progressive web app?

Progressive web apps (PWA) offer an alternative approach, improving an app’s cross-platform performance across web and mobile. PWAs employ service workers (scripts a browser will run in a separate browser thread) to manage requests, caching and storing shell data in a cache. Compared to native apps, they use up much less storage space on a user’s device. PWA users also have the option to save the app to their home screen without the hassle of a full download.

There are several ways to improve the user experience with your PWA. Google, for example, describe this app type as “reliable, fast, and engaging.” It has even created a checklist designed to take a “Baseline PWA” and develop it into a fully optimized “Exemplary PWA.”

PWAs offer developers an option to build their apps without having to hire separate teams for iOS and Android. For this reason, as well as encouraging performance statistics from the likes of Twitter, many developers advocate for this approach. That being said, it’s critical to understand the benefits of native apps and PWAs before making a decision.

What are the benefits of a native app?

1. Ease of use with other native apps

A major benefit to creating native apps for iOS and Android is that these applications can interact with other native apps (for example, if you want your app to allow users to seamlessly connect with Facebook).

2. Supported tools and frameworks

When developing a native app, you will use a variety of developer-supported tools in conjunction with the relevant OS. In comparison, PWAs don’t have the same options to simplify development and streamline the overall process because they are not developed for one platform.

3. Monetization

Your native app can integrate payment processing with a user’s app store, making it easier for users to make purchases and subscriptions. If you want to monetize a PWA, you’re required to integrate your own payment system. However, longer session times and increased engagements may balance this out. In Tinder’s previously mentioned PWA, purchases on the web were on par with the company’s native app.

4. App store visibility

While both native apps and PWAs can be published on the App Store, this process is more complicated for the latter. With a PWA, you are required to write a native wrapper that notes your app’s native iOS capabilities. You also have to provide valid proof that you are a legal, registered business. To learn about these processes for each app store, read this comparison guide.

With easier access to the app store, you can focus your resources on App Store Optimization (ASO) and Apple Search Ads (ASA) instead. Both ASO and ASA are cost-effective means of acquiring high value users, encouraging those who have shown intent (searching specific keywords) to install your app.

5. Security

With native apps, it’s easier to implement robust security features such as two-factor authentication because the app has access to necessary device information. PWAs need their own security certification, while native apps can embed TLS certificates to ensure high security standards are met.

6. Battery consumption

PWAs are not as efficient when it comes to battery usage simply because they are not written in the hardware’s native language. While this may cause some users to reduce their activity on a PWA, this problem is avoided by opting to build a native app.

What are the benefits of a progressive web app (PWA)?

Although native apps are still a relevant option for developers, there are several ways in which they are outperformed by PWAs. Here are a few key examples of why developers are opting to build PWAs as a performance-enhancing alternative.

1. Loading speed

As previously discussed, PWAs use service workers to manage requests, caching and the storage of shell data. As a result, the app shell will load much faster than a native app. Loading speed is quicker for the user even if they aren’t connected to the internet, although new information won’t be available until they are reconnected. Because loading speeds have a huge impact on retention and engagement, this is a critical benefit of developing a PWA in place of (or in addition to) a native app.

2. User experience

PWAs allows you to offer users a unified experience, with the same interface in their browser and the app installed on their device. This eliminates any need for the user to learn more than one interface — an experience that could otherwise frustrate users when using mobile web and a native app.

Native apps also require more storage space on a user’s device. This is a factor that is preferable to users with limited storage space. With PWAs, users have access to your app’s full functionality without having to think about their storage or a lengthy download period.

3. Development cost

Building a PWA that can operate across multiple platforms and operating systems is cost effective and will dramatically reduce your workload. In addition to this, building separate native apps for Android and iOS would otherwise require you to spend time on new features and regular updates relevant to that operating system.

4. Online visibility

We previously mentioned that native apps are easier to place in app stores, but PWAs still have greater visibility due to the nature of their build. Because PWAs are made up of app-imitating web pages, users can find your app online — not just in the app store. This allows you to utilize SEO in order to reach valuable users in a cost effective manner. It also means users can share the URL of any app page with ease, increasing the opportunities for organic growth and engagement.

But what if you already have a functioning native app and want the capabilities of a PWA? Dan Dascalescu, CTO at CryptoClimate, explains that sometimes it’s not a case of choosing between PWA and native “because if you already have a product, an app, a web presence, or both, you should improve both.” If you have the resources needed to build native apps and web apps, while also keeping them in sync, this is a positive solution for your users. However, he also notes that without a native app already in place, “choosing to build PWA first is a no-brainer.” If you do have the resources necessary for both PWA and native apps, you have the advantage of being able to gain organic traffic from search engines, the App Store, and Google Play with sufficient SEO and ASO. You are also providing users with several options on how to enjoy your app.

With many advantages to both native apps and PWAs, choosing the right course of action is a giant leap towards your company goals. In Andrew Gazdecki’s article in Forbes, the founder and CEO of Bizness Apps suggests that progressive web apps will replace native mobile apps over time, noting that “Google, Apple and Microsoft -- the three main standards in terms of native app distribution — are all driving the transition to PWAs.” He adds that because of their “inherent flexibility,” PWAs are the best way to stay ahead of the curve in the mobile industry. Ultimately, it’s a case of deducing what is most essential to your app’s survival, and choosing a build whichever suits those needs.

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