Why your mobile App would be better off as a web app

Probably every programmer knows this situation: Someone has this „very cool idea for a mobile app“ and wants you to build it for them. I understand that, I once was in their shoes. The problem isn’t that they are asking. The problem is that it is always about mobile Apps. Yes, most of us use our smartphone more than our laptop and yes, most successful startups deploy mobile apps. This is misleading, however. There are a lot of indices for why the golden times of mobile apps are over. I’ll show you 5.

Download numbers of mobile apps decrease

There once were times when everybody downloaded every pp from the App Store or from Google Play. Mobile apps were something new and interesting and it was too seductive to have as many as possible of them on the home screen. The more, the better. Things have changed, however. When did you download an app the last time that is not developed by Google or your bank? A statistic of Statista paints the picture. On the first look, it doesn’t even look that bad. The downloads in the Apple App Store increased marginally since 2017. The stats of Google Play even look a lot better! The problem is that these are absolute values. The number of Apps in the app stores increases as well and, even more important, the number of smartphones, too. Smartphones have become less expensive and are therefore more affordable in emerging countries. This explains why especially downloads in the Google Play Store increase. All in all, however, this indicates that the downloads per person are probably not rising.

Browsers are fast enough in smartphones today

Originally, mobile apps were introduced to protect the spare resources of smartphones. Back in 2006, websites were just not optimized for small devices with low computing power. Mobile app development in languages like Objective-C (and nowadays Swift) for iOS and Java for Android thus were used in order to bring the interfaces in a consumable format and increase the user experience. This argument doesn’t count anymore. The Samsung Galaxy S10, for example, has 6 gigs of RAM and mobile Browsers like Chrome or Safari have evolved as well.

Additionally, the programming languages used in web development have changed, too. Web design with HTML, CSS and Javascript is done mobile first these days and frameworks like Angular, React or Vue allow for really lean and fast UIs that would be hard to accomplish with vanilla Javascript.

If this is not enough, Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are the mercy strike for native apps. PWAs are designed in a way so that they can be used as „regular“ websites on the laptop but still offer native features on smartphones like offline capabilities, push-notifications or camera access. If you want to find out more about PWAs check out this Youtube series by Google.

Using PWAs or web apps in general has multiple advantages. They are written in HTML, CSS and Javascript and rely on these technologies across all client devices. In mobile development, you have to use Swift for iOS and Java for Android. That basically means two projects for one app. Plus, with web apps you don’t need the user to install you updates manually on their phone. You just update the app on your server, which ist especially advantageous in the case of security vulnerabilities.

Mobile App development is expensive

If you want to build an app, you of course want it to be available in the App Store and on Google Play. iOS and Android are two different operating systems and require their apps to be written in two different programming languages: Swift and Java, respectively. The consequence: two different projects for one app. This is why you sometimes see difference in the UI between iOS and Android, even in the Apps of major players like Facebook or Amazon. The apps were coded by different teams with different SDKs! And don’t forget the backend. It’s not hard to tell that this is pretty expensive.

To market your product you need a website, anyways

Your app doesn’t sell itself, of course. You’ll have to do that yourself. But where? In the app stores there are search engines and recommended apps. However, especially the latter does not come for free and people barely enter the app store just to search for an app they didn’t know they needed. The Apple App Store or Google Play are mostly opened with the user already having a download intention. Consequently, the attention has to be grabbed outside the app store, either through social media, offline marketing or your website. The last option is especially attractive, because when combined with good SEO, you can generate free traffic by people who actually searched for the problem that your product tries to solve. If you already do that, why not save your user the laborious way to the app store and move the functionality to your website?

More strict rules at publication

Before an app is available in the Apple App Store or at Google Play, the respective company (Apple and Google) has to authorize it. So you as the developer upload the app and then it is tested by the host for malicious code, security issues and other regulations. This can be very helpful if a bug is found that you didn’t catch. Unfortunately, there are also some reviews of your content. Apple, for example, is known for declining apps that do not use their native payment system and instead use something like Stripe. That wouldn’t happen when using a web app.

Conclusion

There is not much more left that speaks in favor of mobile app development. People download less apps, the development is relatively expensive and the alternatives in the web are very attractive. If you have an idea for an app the next time, first ask yourself if you might not be better off with a web app.