Native apps vs. mobile websites: A new battlefront opens

Bandwidth efficiency—a key factor in developing markets—proves a boon to mobile websites

It’s one of the most challenging ongoing conflicts in mobile technology: native apps vs. mobile websites. Is it better to develop apps for specific mobile operating systems like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android or instead turn to websites that are optimized for mobile browsing. 

Performance vs. flexibility

Traditionally, the tradeoff has been that native apps can do more and perform faster because they can be tied more directly to the mobile operating system and the device hardware. Mobile web apps, on the other hand, are typically easier to develop and more flexible. You can build an app once, and it runs reasonably well everywhere—rather than have to develop multiple versions for every mobile OS. 

At least that’s been the conventional wisdom in the developed world, where native apps’ performance advantage can help tip the balance in a very competitive market. But now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, mobile websites are getting a big boost from new users in developing countries. 

Mobile web browsers are more efficient

The issue, the Journal says, is bandwidth efficiency. Native apps “are the product of markets where monthly data plans and home Wi-Fi are abundant.” But relatively expensive pay-as-you-go data plans are much more prevalent in developing markets in Asia, South America, Mexico and Africa. 

That puts a premium on compressing data transmissions and blocking data-hungry ads, something modern mobile browsers popular in developing markets—UC Browser, Opera Mini and Chrome, for example—are getting better and better at.  (The Journal noted compression rates up to 90 percent, which was news to me.) 

Native apps vs. mobile web remains a complex issue

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. Even less affluent users with limited ability to pay for data want the best performance they can get. And when you add in the complexity of zero-rating services—where carriers and content vendors subsidize delivery of certain content so users aren’t charged for the data used—it’s not always clear that mobile web apps always conserve a significant amount of data.  Finally, for the richest, most desirable customers, minimizing data usage may not be the most important factor.

Still, it seems that when considering the issues in choosing whether to develop native apps or mobile web apps, the audience you hope to attract should be a factor in the decision. If you’re looking to serve large numbers of users in developing countries where data usage is relatively dear, mobile websites may be a better choice.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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