software development

Responsive Web vs Native App: What’s best for your mobile presence?

Chris Powers
January 25th, 2021

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% 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 responsive web app or a native 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.

Responsive web vs. native app

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 or install anything. They simply type in the responsive app’s URL and hit enter.

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 several 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 a 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.

Why is responsive web design not a perfect replacement for native applications?

Google stresses the importance of offering a mobile-friendly web presence. In 2015, the company adjusted its lofty search methodology to promote mobile-friendly sites, stating

“We’re boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results. Now searchers can more easily find high-quality and relevant results where text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling.”

So while adopting a responsive web approach is essential to your site ranking on Google for in-browser users, it fails to deliver the same user experience that a native app offers. Let’s break down some of the benefits a native app offers over a responsive web approach.

User experience (UX)

Because responsive web apps are limited by the constraints of a web browser, they often fail to deliver the user-friendly interfaces and experiences that users are accustomed to with native apps. Because these features are hard-coded into a native app, their user experiences are easily recreated across all devices and mobile operating systems. With a responsive web app, users may get a different UX based on what device and what internet browser they are using.

Content optimization

Optimizing your web presence for mobile is all about driving down your bounce rate. If your site has slow page speed or is difficult to navigate on a smaller screen, users are more likely to leave your site and look elsewhere on the web. When building a responsive web app, therefore, it’s essential to optimize your content for mobile users. This means scaling back or removing any animations, editing text, and downscaling high-quality photos to ensure good performance for mobile users. These efforts are time-consuming, and can ultimately reduce the impact of your site’s mobile presence when compared to its desktop counterpart. 

User engagement features

Because native apps are downloaded directly to users’ mobile devices, they offer a host of engagement features to keep people engrossed and involved with the app itself. These features include things like push notifications that prompt users to interact with the app, as well as integrations with a device’s camera and microphone. These features allow native apps to actively engage with users—something responsive web apps by their nature can’t match.

Additionally, unlike native apps, responsive web apps are not distributed through a mobile operating system’s app store, meaning the mobile presence itself cannot be directly monetized. 

The lines between desktop and mobile development are blurring

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 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.

How to develop a native app

Native app development works a little differently than responsive web development. It requires different technologies and considerations. Free from the constraints of browser limitations and compatibility, you can take advantage of native OS features to deliver superior functionality and user experience.

Android native app development

Developed and maintained by Google, Android is an open-source mobile operating system. Native apps for Android devices can be developed using multiple languages, including Java, Kotlin, and C++. Android SDK is a collection of all the relevant tools and libraries you’ll need to build apps for Android. It also includes Android Studio, the official integrated development environment (IDE) for Android. This development environment provides a fast, flexible platform to develop cutting-edge apps.

Because of its open-source framework, Android development is relatively easy compared to development on Apple’s proprietary iOS. The large community of developers operating on the Android SDK facilitates the sharing of ideas and code, meaning extensive documentation and a faster time-to-market for applications.

iOS native app development

Unlike Android, Apple’s iOS is not open-source, meaning there’s less of a development community sharing ideas, code, and best practices. Also, because it’s designed to work exclusively on Apple hardware, you are limited to using Mac devices to do the grunt work. It’s a bit more involved than Android development, but Apple does offer its own set of extensive developer tools. It’s iOS SDK is quite extensive, as well as its XCode IDE and TestFlight beta testing app.

Just be aware, Apple’s App Store review guidelines are pretty strict compared to Android’s. Its rigorous review process puts your app under a microscope, looking for any issues concerning privacy, security, performance, UX/UI, and more. Be sure to have your ducks in a row on the development front before submitting to the App Store, or you could be in for a painful rejection.

How to develop a responsive app

The HTML5 and CSS3 languages are the main components for building responsive web apps. HTML5’s adaptability and CSS3’s enhanced styling capabilities make them ideal candidates for producing transformative web experiences. Some front-end frameworks—like Bootstrap and Foundation—are also commonly used to develop and deliver responsive websites and apps quickly and at scale.

There are numerous other elements to ensuring a web app is truly responsive, including:

  • Media queries: First released in CSS3, they allow web content to respond to different display conditions like screen resolutions
  • Fluid grid systems and layouts: Ensure the app adapts to the screen size accordingly
  • Flexible image sizing: Using relative units to size images to ensure they remain housed in their proper location no matter what device pages are viewed on

Responsive apps have a major benefit over native apps in that they are developed using a single codebase. Developing for both Android and iOS can be costly and time-consuming because each platform has its own unique set of requirements. A responsive app, however, only needs a single source of code to display on any browser, meaning users can access the app no matter what device they are using.

How to choose what’s best for your business

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 micro-interactions

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 casts a wider net.

Making the choice

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. We work with companies to modernize legacy technology and give them the tools they need to excel in a digital landscape dominated by the smartphone. 

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. We’ll go the extra mile to ensure your app performs to its full potential. 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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