software development

Native apps vs. responsive web: What’s best for your mobile presence?

Chris Powers
August 3rd, 2020

Early in the application development process, your team is going to have to make a crucial decision. With smartphone use growing significantly across the globe—just over 45 percent of the world’s population are smartphone users—designing your app with a mobile-first mindset is a given. But with two distinct methods of mobile app development in play, determining the best approach for your business can be difficult. Choosing between a native app or a responsive web app is a decision that’s not to be taken lightly. Each approach offers a host of benefits and challenges. Understanding which method is right for your users and your business is fundamental to the long-term health of your application.

What is a native app?

A native app is an app that is built using a mobile operating system’s (OS) programming language. These apps are purpose-built to run on a specific mobile OS, and adhere to all standards and guidelines determined by the OS. For example, if you were building an app for iPhone users, you would use Apple’s Swift language, and then submit the final product to the App Store to be reviewed and vetted before launching. With Android, you have a number of options. While Java is Android’s default programming language, other languages like Kotlin are supported. Additionally, developers can utilize Android’s Native Development Kit (NDK). This allows engineers to initially write code in C/C++, which the kit then compiles into native code, cutting out the need for an intermediary language.

Because they are written specifically for a singular OS, native apps tend to run faster and more efficiently. They are also able to interface easily with hardware capabilities, like camera and Bluetooth. Native apps bear similar navigation features and hallmarks of other apps developed for the same OS, so they offer similar user experiences and draw on a shared approach to usability.

What is a responsive web app?

Responsive web apps are digital experiences that run on multiple different types of devices through internet browsers. Designed to scale with different screen sizes, responsive web apps often mimic the look and feel of native apps. Frequently, responsive web apps are designed with the mobile experience top of mind, and then the design is scaled up to accommodate the larger screens of tablets, laptops, desktops, and more. Responsive designs use fluid grid systems, and scalable photos and graphics that alter the presentation of the app based on screen size. 

The key benefit to responsive design is the ability to replicate user experience across platforms. Because they are accessible in-browser, responsive web apps work well on the smallest mobile device screen to a sizable desktop monitor. Unlike native apps, there’s no need for the users to download and install anything. They simply type in the responsive app’s URL and hit enter.

In 2019, Apple announced a beta project with the intention of allowing iOS and iPadOS apps to be “ported” to run on macOS. Recently, Apple announced macOS Big Sur, the newest version of macOS. Part of Big Sur includes project Catalyst, a polished release of last year’s beta test. As expected, Catalyst allows for apps—either new or existing—that are built for iPhone and iPad to be updated with very simple lines of code to allow the same app to run on a desktop. Apple is even providing the service at no additional cost, along with the necessary tools and software development kits (SDKs).

In fact, all of Apple’s default apps within macOS that are also on iOS are now transitioned using Catalyst. The transition itself isn’t perfect, and is now creating a new conversation around usability and user experience. Is the same functionality for a touchscreen able to work with a mouse and keyboard?

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, the lines between desktop or mobile app development are blurring more and more each day.

Going mobile means making a choice

Both native and responsive web apps come with their own sets of development challenges and design considerations. Companies with cost or time-to-market as their chief concern frequently elect to go the responsive web app route. This is because numerous comprehensive, inexpensive frameworks exist for responsive development, including Bootstrap, Foundation, and Skeleton. Native apps require a dedicated team of developers familiar with a specific OS and language. If you want your app to run on both iOS and Android, you’ll need to hire separate teams for each. This, combined with the approval process required to get apps listed on the relevant app stores, means native app development can be a costly and time-consuming affair.

Unlike native apps, responsive web apps do not easily integrate with mobile features or hardware. They are only accessible with an internet connection and require a lot of content optimization to ensure swift load times for users. High-fidelity images and other UI assets must be implemented with the mobile user in mind. Native apps are designed with efficiency in mind, negating the need for optimization, and delivering consistently fast user experiences. Native apps also grant designers more creative freedom to implement intelligent UI functionality, like clever animations or smart microinteractions

Many companies elect to have both responsive and native versions of their applications. Take Instagram for example; it offers a responsive web app that replicates much of the experience of the native app and expands its user base as a result. While not always practical or cost-effective for some companies, offering both native and responsive apps definitely casts a wider net.

Determining what’s best for your business

Companies looking for a flexible, cost-effective approach towards mobile app development will likely choose to go responsive, while those seeking a faster, more visually engaging experience will go native. Evaluating your business priorities effectively will help you determine the best course of action for mobile development. 

At Codal, we’ve helped countless companies craft engaging, immersive apps that deliver superior user experiences and solve real business challenges. Whether it’s a native app, a responsive web app, or both, Codal can help your business design, develop, polish, and perfect digital experiences that exceed your users’ expectations. Talk to Codal today to learn more.

Chris Powers

Chris Powers

Chris is a Content Marketing Specialist at Codal. With a background in journalism and marketing, Chris has written about a variety of tech topics, including open source, fintech, and cybersecurity. Chris loves taking on new challenges with just a pen, paper, and his brain.


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