Web Apps vs. Native Apps interview with Ryan Matzner Fueled.com

In this ten minute interview with Ryan Matzner, Lead Strategist at Fueled, an iPhone & Android app development agency based in New York, NY we learn his perspective regarding a recent article he wrote entitled, “Why Web Apps Will Crush Native Apps” for Mashable.com.

Specifically we learn Ryan’s thoughts on:

* Should you build a Native app or a Web App with HTML?
* A side by side comparison
* Pros and Cons of Native vs. Web Apps
* Features and benefits of Native vs. Web Apps
* Hybrid (Simple apps and Web browsers )
* User Experience issues
* Build time and cost issues
* Opportunities for Web Developers
* Advice for Web Developers
* Advice for those that teach Web and Mobile Application Development


Here’s the original article:

Why Web Apps Will Crush Native Apps
Ryan Matzner
September 12, 2012

Over five years ago (on January 9th, 2007, for those of us who are counting), Steve Jobs released the original iPhone. At the time, the only apps on the iPhone were the ones that came pre-installed (think stocks, calculator and YouTube). There were so few apps, they didn’t even fill up the home screen! Apple didn’t provide the ability to create or install any add-on apps. Instead, developers were urged to create web apps that users would access through the built-in Safari web browser.

Facing backlash from developers, particularly in light of a community of hackers that figured out how to crack the iPhone’s code and build their own apps, Apple came around and embraced native apps.

Apple’s App Store contains more than 700,000 iPhone and iPad apps today. The apps available in Apple’s App Store, the Google Play marketplace, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace are all “native” apps, in that developers built them using technology and code largely proprietary to those platforms. An app built for the iPhone has to be almost entirely re-coded if it’s to work on a device running Google’s Android operating system (a bit like translating a book from one language to another).

Then, there are web apps.
Intro to Web Apps

Web apps are built in standards-based technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and other modern web tech. Without any special translations, conversions or re-programming, a web app can run on pretty much any platform with a modern, standards-compliant web browser. Once a web app is launched, users on iPhones, iPads, Android phones, the Kindle Fire and Windows Phones can all access the same app and run it just as well as on any other platform.

Native apps only work on the one platform they were built for, plus they take longer and cost more to build than a web app. Why then, would anyone bother building native? Current technology makes native apps a superior experience — but this is the case only for as long as we’re stuck with current technology. A few advances here and there, and pretty soon native apps will go the way of desktop apps (i.e. there are still a few around but most users spend most of their time in the browser). A few elements explain why native won’t rule the app roost in the future.
User Experience

Native apps tend to have a smoother look and feel, more polish. Native apps are able to leverage elements of their native operating system (i.e. rubberbanding, overscroll and slick screen transitions on iOS), so they feel more deeply integrated into the phone. When it comes to aesthetics and overall user experience, it is incredibly difficult for web apps to trump native. Furthermore, native apps come with lots of elements pre-loaded and only need to fetch user data from the web rather than the entire application, making them speedier.

The web has come a long way from the days of scrolling marquee. It’s only a matter of time before the technologies behind web apps are able to compete directly with the aesthetic capabilities of native apps. Remember how marvelously advanced HTML5 seemed when it came out? Just wait ’til HTML6 or 7!

And as for having to download more data than native apps: In the future, battery life and mobile connections will be fast enough that it won’t matter. 4G download speeds are actually faster than the average U.S. broadband connection, and when was the last time you worried about the size of a website loading on your desktop?

Native apps are easy to find and install. The Apple App Store, Google Play, etc. are great places to browse for and download apps. The hard part of building a successful app store is creating a robust developer community willing to devote the time, effort and money to build lots of great apps that users want to use. That’s a tall order, and is probably the biggest part of why Microsoft is struggling to gain traction with Windows Phone.

One caveat to this whole web app thing is competition. Apple, Google and even Microsoft must be particularly content with the great control and influence they wield by controlling distribution for their platforms via app stores and marketplaces. As web apps pick up steam and begin to threaten mobile apps, it’s likely that current stakeholders will push back against anything that devalues their native app stores. Fortunately for consumers, there’s probably not a whole lot anyone can do to stop the impending march of web apps. Robust web browsers being baked into the OS aren’t going anywhere.

With web apps, there’s no need to convince developers to create software for a specific platform. Instead, apps created for users on the most popular platforms will also work for users on the least popular platforms, assuming that platform has a decent web browser. In the future, app stores can be created by independent retailers rather than operating system creators. Directory sites such as BestVendor and Listio might grow to rival Apple’s App Store.
Build Time and Cost

A typical native app takes a bit longer to build than an equivalent web app would, but as developer tools and education improve, that will likely change. And as more developers become versed in the development languages and technologies used to create native apps, overall app development costs will fall.

But one thing that likely won’t change in the world of native apps is that building for multiple platforms and devices is expensive. Adding iPad compatibility when building an iPhone app can add up to 50% to the development costs of a project. When rumors began swirling that Apple might release an iPad Mini, we wondered, who has the budget to build for all these screen sizes?

Web apps will work on devices across a range of sizes by being adaptive and responsive.

This is an area where web apps already trump native. Much to the chagrin of developers, typical mobile users update their apps very infrequently. That means the user base for a particular native app is spread across multiple versions. A friend recently exclaimed his surprise that Instagram wasn’t working properly on his iPhone. It turns out he hadn’t updated the app in a while and was using an unsupported old version.

Having an out-of-date web app is virtually impossible. Think about loading a website. Each time a visitor loads a site, he or she is loading the latest version off the server. When Google updates the logo on their homepage, seeing it doesn’t require users to go and download an update to Google — the mere action of visiting the site means the user is viewing the latest version.

Web apps mean that users will never have to worry about updates.
Hardware Interfacing

One of the things that make native apps so delightful to use is their ability to leverage the phone’s hardware so seamlessly. Think about all the great apps that use your phone’s accelerometer (Nike+), GPS (Foursquare) or camera (Instagram). Of those three, web apps can only access GPS and even then, only in a limited capacity. Yes, that’s right — web apps can’t even use your phone’s camera or access photos you’ve already taken.

There’s no standard way for web apps to access hardware on mobile devices, but that’s relatively easy to change in future updates. One issue to overcome is potential security concerns, but probably the biggest hurdle is a lack of cooperation from entrenched interests that would prefer to keep a native app monopoly in place. Nonetheless, competitive pressures in the app and phone OS space will eventually force devices to become more open.
Credit Cards

Apple users are notoriously voracious consumers. Apple’s secret weapon is that it has 400 million active iTunes accounts with credit cards on file. And having a credit card on file makes app purchases a breeze — tap “buy” and enter a password — that’s it! Google and Microsoft surely have far fewer active accounts on their platforms, but those numbers are growing. The bottom line is that purchasing native apps and making in-app purchases is exceedingly easy.

There is no consolidated payment system for purchasing web apps or buying web app add-ons, but that will change over time as players like PayPal, Square, Venmo and others jump into the space.

A huge part of the success of iOS is attributed to Apple’s App Store, much as the iTunes music store is a big part of why the iPod was such a hit. And yet, the App Store’s undoing will likely be the web apps that Apple originally promoted in lieu of native apps.

One thought on “Web Apps vs. Native Apps interview with Ryan Matzner Fueled.com

  1. Mark DuBois

    Over the long run, web apps will be easier to maintain and keep current than native apps. This is the main thesis of the above article and discussion and I agree. This becomes increasingly true as multiple screen sizes are available on most platforms (consider the potential iPad mini vs. iPad; the iPhone 5 vs. iPhone 4 and 4S and previous). It can take much more effort to develop native apps as opposed to web apps relying on responsive design techniques.

    That being said, today, web apps can not directly access various parts of the hardware. Ryan’s example of locating similar individuals nearby is a good point. This may change. As we know the technology is rapidly evolving.

    I think Ryan makes a number of good points and this is definitely a post that should attract a lot of interest. I will be pointing my students in my mobile app development class to this resource and look forward to an active discussion on this topic.


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