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Illustration of three phone screens representing a native, hybrid and web app, respectively.

How to Choose the Right Type of Mobile App: Native, Web or Hybrid

| 6 min read

There are three main options for creating a mobile app. You can create a native app, a hybrid app or a web app (also named a browser-based app). Here we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of each option and how to choose the best development path for your projects.

What is a Native App?

A native app only runs on a specific mobile operating system. It won’t run on other mobile operating systems. So, for example, if you develop a native app for iOS, you’d do the development in Swift.

The biggest advantages to native apps are that they can normally access all the functionality of the chosen device easily and are more likely to run without error on the device if developed properly.

However, this comes with a trade-off. A native app cannot run on a device that doesn’t utilize the same operating system. That means if you want your app to run on iOS and Android, you will have to develop the app twice, once for each operating system. This can make the development process both slower and more expensive.

Many companies will develop their app for a single operating system when they choose the native route. If the app is successful in that environment, they will then go back and recreate it for other operating systems. 

What is a Hybrid App?

A hybrid app works on multiple platforms. It’s written with a single standard code language (such as C# or a combination of HTML5 and JavaScript) and then compiled and executed on each platform. The use of plugins for that operating system will normally manage device-specific interactions.

Illustration of the differences between coding a native app (two different programming languages) versus coding for a hybrid app (one language ).

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

The biggest advantage of hybrid apps is that they enable support for multiple operating systems at a more cost-effective price point than multiple native apps. For a well-developed app, users will not normally be able to distinguish whether an app is native or hybrid. Users generally don’t care about your app's development process—they just care if it works on their device and does what they expect it to do.

There are disadvantages to hybrid app development. It can present serious challenges if the app requires complex interaction from the device—there’s a limit to what plugins can achieve on this front. The costs of upkeep on a hybrid application may be higher than the costs of a native application.

What is a Web App?

A web app or browser-based app is a website that can deliver similar functionality to an app. In fact, with a little creativity, you can keep the differences to a minimum and design a web app, so it looks and feels pretty much like a native app. There are different approaches to help you create successful mobile websites, such as responsive and adaptive design.

A significant drawback of responsive websites is that you cannot distribute the app through an app store; this can be a deal breaker if you’re looking to monetize downloads of your app. Users have to access them through a URL.

Additionally, the user will need constant connectivity to use the website. This may not be a problem in highly developed markets where mobile broadband is nearly ubiquitous, but it can be a serious issue in developing markets.

The average user already uses up to 40 apps a month, and more than 400,000 apps are released a year. This many apps can be overwhelming from a user’s perspective. With enough well-designed mobile websites, users may move away from apps and back to individual sites to provide their online experience. Then, apps might just become “launchers” of mobile websites.

The Take-Away

Choose the right development approach for your mobile app to deliver the right user experience. If you understand the differences between hybrid, native and responsive, you can make the right decision for your project.

Native apps are “native” to one platform—you’ll need to create different apps for iOS, Android, etc. Hybrid ones work on any device regardless of the operating system. Both native and hybrid apps can be distributed through app stores and installed on devices. On the other hand, web apps are browser-based and can’t be installed on devices.

References and Where to Learn More

Here are some statistics about mobile operating systems.  

For more about mobile app downloads and their evolution over time, see this report from Statista.

Hero image: © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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