8 Differences Between Progressive Web Apps and Native Apps

by | Apr 8, 2019


Differences among hardware platforms are one of the most limiting factors in software development. Android, iOS, and desktop applications all have their pros and cons in terms of technical details as well as other business and social intricacies. One form of software that is becoming progressively popular is progressive web apps. It’s a form of application that can run on almost any hardware platform with minimal inconsistencies between the experiences. Some notable examples include Twitter Lite, the default mobile browser version of Twitter, the Washington Post’s recently reworked mobile browser experience, and the hit game 2048. There are still, of course, highly compelling reasons to choose a native application for your project, but progressive web apps (or PWAs) might be worth considering, depending on your objective.


progressive web app vs. native apps, difference between progressive web apps and native apps, progressive web app, native app, building an app, software development


1. Under the Hood: Differences in Code and Hardware

When an application is “native”, that means the  application is built to run in a certain software environment. A native iOS app is designed and built for Apple’s hardware and its various abilities, meaning it can incorporate Apple-specific features, for example, FaceID and the Apple accelerometer. The same goes for Android native applications, and though it’s not often discussed this way, Microsoft Windows or OS X applications. Native apps are built with dedicated programming languages that are designed for the same environment as the app. Apple’s native languages are Objective-C and Swiftthe latter is being adopted as the former is phased outand Android native apps are built with Java. Progressive web apps are built like web apps. They use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build out and integrate many of the same features contained in a native application, but can’t take advantage of as full a range. Thanks to HTML5, progressive web apps can usually use hardware such as the camera or mic, but can’t take advantage of low-level hardware features like pressure-sensitive touch or 3D graphics rendering.


2. App Stores or Web Browsers?

Getting users to download a native application from the app store takes effort and investment, with 49% of smartphone users downloading new applications on a monthly basis. If your business isn’t in a position to invest in that promotion, progressive web apps offer an opportunity for engagement because the barriers to entry are lower. It’s a convenient practice for getting apps off the ground because PWAs can be modified and converted to native app experiences, which can take more liberty with a hardware or software platform’s capabilities. Progressive web apps can use their full range of functionality in web or mobile browsers, and will frequently include an “add to home screen” option, downloading the app to the user’s phone or PC directly from the browser instead of routing them through an app store listing. Deciding between a PWA or native app depends on a ton of factors that will vary based on your needs, but unless you’ve identified and engaged a target user base, quick growth and flexibility are solid arguments for building a PWA. After the PWA is finished, it’s usually advisable to build native versions of your product, enabling an improved experience.


3. Development Process: Frameworks and Tech Specs

Developing a native mobile application usually involves using a wide range of developer-supported tools and frameworks created by, for example, Apple or Google’s engineers. Some examples of these are Apple’s Foundation or Google’s UI framework Flutter. Progressive web app development doesn’t offer as many tools for streamlining and simplifying the process, but that’s a cost that comes with its flexibility. It’s not necessarily more challenging to build a PWA though, even if fewer shortcuts are available. With progressive web apps, you don’t have to use any particular JavaScript framework, like Angular or React JS, which you need for many forms of web app development. The breadth of developer-supported tools for app builders gives native developers a slight edge in terms of efficiency.


4. Designation vs. Best Practices

“Native” means something specific with regard to software development, as outlined earlier. For a mobile app to be native to its host platform, it has to be designed with that fact in mind, receive an app store certification, and often use specific technologies. Progressive web app development is a set of best practices for web apps that makes them more useful to a diverse user base. The practices for web app development that make them progressive effectively include any extra step that makes an HTML-based web page function and handle data like a desktop or mobile app would. The integrated user experience of a PWA is a function of its progressive development practices, and web apps can be “progressive” to varying degrees. With a native mobile app, you can take advantage of a phone’s native hardware features, including biometrics, specific processing power buffs like the Apple A11 chip, and integration with wearable devices like Apple Watch or Galaxy Gear. Native mobile apps also let you save data to the phone’s storage instead of keeping it in limited flash memory. PWAs, as it keeps turning out, give you a little more wiggle room, but at the cost of hardware functionality


5. The Money: Monetizing Native Apps vs. PWAs

Progressive Web Apps, generally speaking, are harder to generate revenue with as opposed to a native app. Native apps can integrate with payment processing via the user’s app store, making in-app payments or subscription fees viable models for such applications. The flexibility of the PWA becomes a challenge here. To effectively monetize a progressive web app, it would need a dedicated payment system integrated with the app, and premium features might vary across different devices. It’s not common to see progressive web apps as robust revenue streams. The bottom line: native apps make more money.


6. Native Apps are Safe and Secure

Security is paramount for any digital project, and if your app handles users’ personal data, it’s critical to factor this into the decision. With native app development, there’s an added layer of security, and significantly more opportunity to include additional features. For example, native apps have immediate access to smartphone information, so it’s more intuitive to build out security features like two-factor authentication via the user’s phone number. Native applications can also have embedded TLS certificates (the successor to SSL encryption), while a progressive web app wouldn’t have its own unique security certification. PWAs can be served over HTTPS, giving them some marginal security options, but the sophistication of native apps’ security measures gives them an edge. For background information on some of the nuances of native app security, check out these tips from freelance industry leader UpWork.


7. For a lightweight application, look to PWAs

While native mobile apps can handle data efficiently and rapidly, PWAs’ foundation in markup languages and JavaScript often makes them essentially faster and more lightweight. A PWA can be especially useful if your target user base doesn’t universally have high-speed internet or WiFi connectivity. Surprisingly enough, even with recent advancements in connectivity, the vast majority of the world still lives in areas covered by basic 2G cell networks. Progressive web apps also offer the ability to cache data to a user’s device, which can limit the amount of data transmitted between a device and the network. Caching also lets you store the app’s framework on a device, which means that after a user first loads the app on the browser, it loads instantly each time they use it afterwards. Of course, caching is essential to native apps, but it happens to varying degrees. When building a native app, it’s important to efficiently store and transmit data so it’s as lightweight as a PWA.


8. Search Optimization

The differences in search techniques for encountering PWAs or native apps are functions of the platform. A progressive web app can be accessed and used from a simple Google search, while native apps require routing through the app store. These mean different things for an app’s accessibility, and aren’t necessarily indicators of quality. Native app listings in dedicated app stores can include robust tagging and categorization, helping users find your app more effectively if they’re already looking for a similar product. App store search optimization is generally much more straightforward than conventional SEO, especially for helping users find the right software. Submitting native or hybrid applications to app stores and following best practices can be time consuming. For more information, check out our brief guide to the process.


progressive web app vs. native apps, difference between progressive web apps and native apps, progressive web app, native app, building an app, software development


There are significant differences between Native applications and the growing Progressive Web App format. Deciding between the two depends on what you need.

Choose PWA if:

  • You only have access to a web developer, or have web dev skills yourself
  • Your idea is still in its early stages, and you want to test it with real users
  • You want desktop users to access the application as well
  • You are focused on speed to market

Choose native if:

  • You are building an app you’d like to monetize
  • Security is a priority for your app
  • Your app should use platform-specific hardware features
  • You already have a targeted user base to market your app to
  • You are building an internal operations or employee-facing app

If you’re new to this field, you may also want to check out our detailed primer on native and hybrid applications.

At present, there are some key advantages to building a native app instead of a progressive web app, however, it depends on what your app does and who it serves. As the (relatively new) technology improves, PWAs may become more viable at scale, and the disadvantages will be ironed out. If you want to learn more about how to build out your native or web app idea, or go into more detail on Native vs. PWA, book a quick consultation with a member of the Hatch Apps team.


Start Designing Your Custom App

Start Designing Your Custom App