A big topic in the app development space today is the merits of webview apps vs native apps.
You might think that a native mobile app is always the way to go - especially if you want to get your app into the app stores. But you might find that you can do just about everything you can with native development, for significantly cheaper, by building a webview app instead.
Read on for a deep dive into native apps and webview apps, including clear definitions and benefits of each. We'll also give you or verdict on the best choice for your project.
Let’s get into it.
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What is a Native App?
A native app is a software application built specifically for a mobile device.
These apps predominantly run on Android or iOS operating systems. There are others, such as the Windows OS or Blackberry OS, however Android and iOS make up 98.7% of the mobile OS market, so we’ll only focus on these two.
A native application uses a specific programming language, tailed to a mobile operating system. Native iOS apps use Swift or Objective-C, while while native Android apps usually use Java or Kotlin.
That means a native app can only work in the environment it was coded for. For example, an iOS app can't run on Android devices. Such an app would need to be re-coded to function for Android users.
There are certain exceptions to this, with frameworks like React Native, which allow for significant code reuse across operating systems. But another option to cut down on the amount of code you need (especially if you're building a cross platform web app), is to use webviews.
What is a Webview?
A webview is a technology that allows an app to display web content, without using a traditional web browser (e.g. Chrome or Safari).
In essence, a webview is an embeddable browser, which shows live web pages, but with the address bar and browser tabs removed.
Webview apps are a kind of hybrid app. Practically, there's very little difference between webview apps and native apps. The webview app can be downloaded to a user's device, and provides a launcher icon, just like a regular native app would. But the webview technology allows the app to derive a large part of its functionality from web code, instead of needing brand new code from a native mobile programming language.
What is the difference between a webview and a browser?
A webview is basically just the engine of the browser, with the user interface removed. That allows you to replace the browser's UI with mobile UI elements, making it appear like a web page is actually part of a mobile app.
How many apps use webviews?
It's impossible to say for sure how many apps use webviews. But it's extremely common. A huge number of apps use webviews in some form, including some of the world's biggest apps, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
One study on Android webview apps found that 86% of the apps they looked at had webviews.
Are webview apps allowed in the app stores?
Unlike progressive web apps, webview apps can be published on the iOS App Store and Google Play Store - with some conditions.
Apps that are only webviews, with no added functionality, will not pass the Apple App Store Guidelines.
If you're building a webview app and want to enter the app stores, you'll need to add more to it than simply a plain webview. You'll want to build mobile UI elements and features such as a native tab menu, navigation, splash screens, mobile login screens and more, to create an app-like experience.
What Are the Benefits of Webview Apps?
Webview apps or hybrid apps are almost always faster and cheaper to build. They also require less work to manage, and make it easier to recreate the UX of your web app or website, while still providing a mobile-friendly app experience.
Let's dive deeper into the benefits of webview apps now.
One code base to manage
If you're building natively, you'll generally need two different code bases - one for each of the iOS and Android versions of your app.
Add that to your web code, and you've got three code bases, in three different frameworks. That requires a lot of work to manage. You'll likely even need three separate developers, as most developers specialize in certain programming languages.
Webview apps are significantly easier to maintain. They're essentially web apps with a little bit of mobile code spliced in. Whenever you update your web content, the app content updates as well.
That makes for much less work and complexity in the long run.
Time to launch
The ability to reuse code also means it’s much quicker and simple to launch your app.
Mobile app development takes a long time - generally at least six months for a first version of your mobile app. And that's with multiple development teams working in tandem to ship different versions for iOS and Android.
Hybrid apps take a fraction of that time. 90% of the work is already done, with the web app code already written.
Webview apps are also much, MUCH cheaper to build.
A native app can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000 - or even more, for particularly complex apps.
You should consider the cost to maintain these apps as well, which can be around 10-20% of the initial cost to build.
A webview app can cost less than a thousand dollars to launch, yet may give you a user experience that is not discernable from what you'd get from a native app. Webview apps are also cheaper to maintain, with less labor and expertise required.
Easier to integrate website features
If you’re building mobile app versions of your website or web app, you may have specific features you want to carry over from web to app.
They could be certain plugins, integrations, themes, or custom-built features.
You might struggle to recreate these features in a native mobile app. With a webview app, however, anything that works on your website or web app will work the same way in your mobile app.
To get an idea of what's possible, use our free Preview Tool to get an interactive demo of your site as a webview app.
What Are the Benefits of Native Apps?
There are benefits to building natively, too. In a vacuum - if you had an unlimited budget and ample time to launch - you'd probably choose native for the added power and flexibility.
Here's a little more on the benefits of native mobile apps.
Building natively allows you to do more than with a web view.
You’ve got control over every pixel in your app. Every interaction, every screen can be customized the way you want it.
You can build your UI to specific conventions for each platform. You don’t need to worry about making sure your app looks great on Android AND iOS. All you do is tweak your UI for each app.
App speed and performance
Native apps generally deliver higher performance than other types. They’re built specifically for the OS they’re installed on, and most of the files needed to run the app are stored locally.
This makes them faster and smoother, in most case. They can also run without an internet connection (which is required for webview apps).
They're also built to work on mobile phones, which means that native apps usually work better when it comes to touchscreen-specific actions (swiping, etc).
Being built for mobile devices, native apps make it easiest to tap into hardware features. Examples being the camera, microphone, GPS, etc.
A webview or hybrid app can also use device features, but it’s generally a little harder to do so without building natively.
Easier pathway to app store approval
Native apps are easier to get into the iOS app store and Google Play store. Low-effort webview apps (think a blank app UI with a web view embedded) are likely to be rejected by the app stores.
But as we mentioned earlier, this is not true for all webview apps. When they’re well-made, they pass the test, as high-quality webview apps are largely indistinguishable from native apps.
Webview & Native Apps vs Mobile Web
Webview apps, hybrid apps and native apps all have big advantages over responsive websites or web apps (including progressive web apps).
More than half of online traffic today comes on mobile. And these people, overwhelmingly, prefer to access content via apps.
Approximately 90% of mobile time is spent using apps. That's because apps - both native and hybrid apps - are much easier to use than mobile browsers.
One tap and you're in. You can stay logged in, there's less fuss getting around and accessing content, and you don't have browser tabs pulling your attention away.
It's just a far better way to consume content on a mobile phone, which is why we're spending more and more time on apps every year.
Push notifications on mobile vs web apps
Another big plus for mobile apps is having the full use of push notifications at your disposal.
You can send push notifications from the web, but it’s limited in terms of what you can do, and on which operating systems.
You want to be able to contact your users with personalized push notifications. As a communication channel, it stands out far and above email and other competitors, with much higher open rates and engagement rates.
Push notifications alone, and the benefit they can have for engagement and retention, are reason enough to convert a website to either a hybrid webview or native app.
To read in-depth about native apps, web apps, hybrid apps, including the benefits of each and several case studies, check out this post.
Webview vs Native App: How to Decide Which Is Right For You
Native apps are more powerful, flexible and easier to use than webview apps.
But are these benefits actually going to be noticeable? It's unlikely.
90% of the time, or perhaps even more, a webview app is more than good enough. You show a user two apps - one native, one webview - and they'll have a hard time telling the difference.
Yet one cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took over six months of all-out work to launch. The other took just 1-2% of that.
That's not to say native development is never worth it. Here's a breakdown on when to go with webviews, and when to build natively.
When are native apps best?
Consider building a native app if the app is going to be the centerpiece of your business model.
Think about something like Uber, Tinder, meditation apps like Headspace, or mobile games. These are almost exclusively used on mobile. Building natively allows you make the most from your mobile user experience - as long as you can afford it.
When are webview apps best?
Webview apps are best for converting a existing websites or web apps to mobile.
You already have something that works well. You've already got a responsive website. You don't need to do anything fancy here - just place it in a web view, add a few small touches, and publish it as a mobile app.
A good example is if you've built a web app in a framework like Vue or Laravel for instance, and want to create a mobile version of your app. You're best off converting it to a hybrid web app using webviews. This will be cheaper, faster and easier than rebuilding in a native app and building the necessary APIs for everything to function in the app.
Is your web content really any different to what you want to show in the app? Do you need to use a ton of device features or make a lot of changes for your app UI?
If not, go with a webview app.
Create a Webview App with MobiLoud
MobiLoud is the best way to use webviews and launch mobile apps for your website or web app.
We’ve helped over 1,200 brands launch webview apps, and enter the mobile app space for a fraction of the cost and time of native development.
MobiLoud is not just an app builder, but a full service. Our team of experts provides hands-on support to help you turn your website into powerful mobile apps. All you need to do is configure a few small things about your mobile apps, and our team handles the rest – including updates, maintenance, and submitting to the app stores.
Unlike many solutions that use webviews, MobiLoud apps seamlessly integrate webviews with native mobile UI. This means your user experience is almost indistinguishable from that of a true native app, and we can guarantee approval to the iOS App Store and Google Play.
Check out these success stories from brands that chose us to launch high-quality webview apps.
If you want to to the same for your business, book a free, personalized demo with one of our app experts today to learn more about the process and how we can help you.