Native vs. Hybrid vs. Web App: What's the Difference?

Native vs. Hybrid vs. Web App: What's the Difference?

Choosing the right type of mobile application to develop for your businesses can be complicated, to say the least.

Web app, hybrid app, or native app—which is better? The answer to this question is somewhat relative. It honestly depends on what your business aims to accomplish by having a mobile application in the first place.

Some questions to consider before doubling down on one type include:

  • How soon do you need a mobile app?
  • What’s your budget for the app development project?
  • What particular features do you need the app to have?
  • In what specific ways will the app serve your business priorities?

While asking these questions is helpful, they won’t do you much good if you don’t even know the difference between each type of mobile application and why those differences matter.

For this reason, we’ll be giving you the rundown on what each type of mobile application does, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and what these differences mean for your business’s mobile app development project.

What are native applications?

When you think of an app, what most likely comes to mind is a branded little icon that sits on your smartphone’s screen.

In reality, the mobile apps that you find in the app store are just one type of mobile app. They’re called native mobile apps.

Native apps developed for Android are written in Java, while apps developed for iOS are written in Swift (you may find older iOS apps written in Objective-C).

Native mobile apps have been known to be faster and more reliable than hybrid or web apps, which lets them deliver a better user experience (UX).

They also let you interact with a device’s API and internal hardware, granting your company’s app access to features like:

  • Camera(s)
  • User contact lists
  • The device’s microphone
  • Device location tracking

Being able to interact with a device’s operating system is a big reason many companies decide to develop native mobile applications.

All these native features also come with larger upfront development costs, which often bars organizations with smaller budgets from making them.

Higher-development costs are a guarantee if you intend for your application to be on more than one device, as this would require your business to create two mobile apps: one for Apple’s App Store and another for Android’s Google Play Store.

Advantages of native apps

  • Superior performance: These applications tend to run smoothly, even when running heavier graphics.
  • Platform-specific features: Creating your app for iOS or Android grants your business access to the platform-specific features.
  • Superior user interface: Because native applications must meet platform-specific standards for performance, these apps tend to outperform hybrid and web applications.
  • App store visibility: Unlike web apps and hybrid apps, native apps offer your business greater visibility because they get featured on app stores; this makes it easier for potential new users to discover your brand.

The principal advantage of native apps is that they optimize the user experience. By being designed and developed specifically for that platform, they look and perform better.

Disadvantages of native apps

  • Greater upfront costs: Expenses for native apps can be higher than hybrid and web apps, especially if your business intends to get your app on more than one platform. This may require your business to hire two development teams.
  • Requires experienced app developers: If you intend to build an app for the Apple App Store, you’ll need to hire an app developer who’s proficient with Swift. If you plan to get your app on the Android App Store, your app developer must know Java. Your team could attempt to build the app on their own, but there’s a considerable learning curve to these programming languages, and the results may not be as polished as one made by a professional.

The principal disadvantage of native apps is that if you wish to build and launch an app on more than one platform (a ride-sharing app, for example), you almost need to start again from both the design and development perspectives for each platform.

What are web applications?

A web application is more or less a website that looks and feels more like a mobile application. Unlike native applications, web apps can run on various internet browsers, like Chrome or Safari, and are written using Javascript and/or HTML5.

Web apps have a lower barrier to entry compared to native apps due to their comparative simplicity and thus tend to be cheaper and easier to develop. The tradeoff is that web apps also tend to be slower and have less intuitive designs for their user interface (UI).

In addition to these downsides, web apps also can’t be featured in app stores for Apple or Android, so your application would have less visibility and be harder to discover organically.

But what web apps lack in discoverability, they make up for in accessibility.

Even though web apps can’t be found on app stores, any user can still access them from any mobile device so long as they have a web browser. And these days, almost every device, from smartwatches to smart TVs, have web browser functionality.

Advantages of web apps

  • Easy maintenance: Unlike native apps, web apps use a common code base across multiple platforms. If something goes wrong with the application, instead of fixing both android and iOS apps, you need only fix one.  
  • Easy accessibility: So long as your users use the right browser, they can access your web application without having to download anything to their devices.
  • Less expensive: Web apps have a lower development cost than native apps. They’re also easier to make.
  • Less user maintenance: With native apps, users typically have to update the app manually by going to the app store. Web apps, on the other hand, let your company update the app without the user having to lift a finger.
  • No app marketplace approval: Because web apps aren’t on the app marketplace, your business won’t have to go through any approval process to be visible to the public, so you can technically release the app whenever you want and in whatever format you choose.

Disadvantages of web apps

  • Smaller scope: While web apps are simpler to make, they also lack native features. For instance, they can’t leverage device features like location tracking or push notifications.
  • More complex UX: Web apps are only available on browsers. While this makes them more accessible, it also complicates the user experience as it takes more steps to get to your application.
  • Less focus on your app: A native app covers your users’ entire screen, making it harder for them to get distracted and leave the app. Web applications lack this feature.
  • Less speed: Web apps tend to be slower, less responsive, and less interactive than native apps.

What are hybrid mobile apps?

As the name implies, hybrid mobile apps combine elements of both web apps and native apps. Hybrid mobile apps can be installed on the device and run via a web browser, so they sit somewhere between native apps and web apps.

These apps are built in two parts:

  1. The backend code.
  2. The native shell (which allows it to be downloadable on app stores).

Similar to hybrid apps are progressive web apps (PWA). Both are a bit of a mix between native and web apps, but there are also some major differences.

For one, PWA’s aren’t available on app stores, but users can still create an app icon for the PWA on their smartphone. They’re also cheaper to make, easily customizable, and tend to offer better speed than hybrid apps in areas where there is slow internet.

Advantages of hybrid apps

  • Developer productivity: Hybrid apps can be built with common web technologies across both the front and backend, reducing development time.
  • Cheaper but greater discoverability: Hybrid apps are simpler and have fewer upfront costs than native apps, and they can also be featured on app stores.
  • Internal API access: Unlike web apps, hybrid apps can utilize device features like location tracking and push notifications.
  • Cross-platform availability: Because hybrid apps are built using a common codebase, they can be used on both Android and iOS devices.

Disadvantages of hybrid apps

  • Inconsistent user experience: Because the performance of the hybrid app is in part dependent on the user’s internet speed, the UX for hybrid applications can be inconsistent.
  • Learning curve: Hybrid apps aren’t built merely using JavaScript or CSS. In order to make them work, they must integrate with hybrid app development frameworks like React Native, Ionic, or Cordova, all of which have a learning curve. Cordova is one of the primary tools that helps connect to native SDKs, which is what allows hybrid apps to utilize certain native features.

Which type of application should your business pay a developer team to create?

By now, you should have a pretty clear understanding of hybrid apps, native apps, web apps, and the differences between them.

For businesses that have a large budget, a native app is probably the best choice as they promise high performance and a consistent user experience.

If you’re a startup or a small business with a smaller budget, a web application will be the most affordable option for you.

And if your business is somewhere in the middle, desiring visibility on the app marketplace while also not wanting to go through the hassle of building two different applications for iOS and Android, a hybrid app will meet your needs.

Regardless of whichever direction you choose to go in, your business should aim to deliver the best user experience possible. Otherwise, all the time and money you devote to building the app will go to waste simply because your users won’t enjoy using it.

Ready to build your own web, hybrid, or native mobile app? Hire a mobile developer on Upwork today.

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Author Spotlight

Native vs. Hybrid vs. Web App: What's the Difference?
Yoshitaka Shiotsu
Technical Copywriter & SEO Consultant

Yoshitaka Shiotsu is a project engineer turned technical copywriter and SEO consultant who regularly contributes to the Upwork Resource Center. He specializes in helping tech companies, startups, and entrepreneurs set themselves up as voices of authority within their target industries.

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