Native Apps are dead. Long live the Web App.

Responsive web apps are here to stay.

Okay, the title might be a vast over exaggeration. However, I firmly believe that native apps (apps that you download on your smartphone) will become less relevant and prominent in the future. They will be replaced by web apps. I will explain why.

There is a lot of talk about PWA (Progressive Web Apps) which basically are web apps that you are able to “save” to your smartphones home screen and use offline. Many people are hyping about this right now, and although this is great and will become more and more relevant in the future I will try to look at the current situation from a users standpoint and a business perspective instead of a future developers point of view.

Ever since the smartphone became popular, or even a necessity, in most peoples lives there has been a craze for apps. At one point it seemed like everybody and their mom wanted to develop an app for every purpose you could think of. The app store is filled with apps that nobody ever uses. Me personally never got on that train of downloading a bunch of apps and having multiple screens full of them — I only identified a handful of useful apps that I really couldn’t be without.

With the development of the native apps, smartphones and other technology, came also the web app. A web app is, simply put, a service/website that is accessed though your web browser, such as Firefox or Safari, on any device like your laptop or smartphone. In the beginning this was much harder and sometimes impossible to achieve in a satisfying way because of the shortcomings of what you could serve through a regular browser. Many things that native apps could easily do was simply not possible to get via a web app. Many people still believe that this is the case, but the reality is that things have changed a lot.

Browser technology has rapidly changed in the past few years with the development of HTML5, increase in usability of JavaScript with Node.js and such and a more homogeneous functionality between the different browser alternatives that exist (except Internet Explorer which always seem like they are lagging behind in almost everything.) Now we have frameworks such as React.js and Angular that can create user experiences that feel and behave almost like a native app does. I’m also very excited for the development of WASM (Web Assembly) that has many great companies working on it and will hopefully change the game for web development by allowing lower-level operations to occur in the browser.

This is my main point to why native apps will decline in popularity; the barriers to entry are too high compared to web apps. Even compared to nothing, they’re still too high in today's on-demand society. Consumers time span is getting shorter and shorter as technology gets faster. In order to successfully serve your content or service to your customer you must make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Otherwise they will quickly loose concentration and start doing something else. People only use about 5 apps in total for everyday use (I would guess even less than that) and by developing an app you are fighting for that attention. Good luck with that.

To download an app you need to go through the following events:

  1. Hear about the app somehow, either from a friend, or read about it somewhere, etc.
  2. Search for the app in the app store
  3. Find the right one (this is not always as obvious as it seems)
  4. Press “Download” and wait for it to install
  5. Finally you are able to use the app, after you allow the app to access things on your device

It is very clear that there are many obstacles in the way of an end-user from using your service or app. You want to minimize these steps as much as possible in order to obtain and retain users. At every step you introduce before the user can use the app you are potentially loosing customers.

“Consumers time span is getting shorter and shorter as technology is gets faster”

Okay, so assume that the user made it all the way through and actually installed your app. Now comes the next problem; if the app does not work 100% perfectly and according to the users expectations they might delete the app! The likelihood of the user installing that app again at a later time is very slim. This puts much more pressure on the developers to create something that has been properly tested and perhaps even viewed by a focus group before they’re able to release the finished product, causing a longer and more expensive process.

Many people argue the point that there is no reason why you can’t have both native and web apps. This is true — if you are able to afford it. Instead of developing just one web app that can be used across every device you would need to also develop an iOS and Android app. You would also have to manage all three of these with updates etc. This is both much more expensive in terms of human resources and upfront costs and also a headache to maintain. And if the web app can do the same things as the native apps then why are we even discussing it? I suppose it somewhat has to do with emotional attachment — and that is the worst reason to keep something around.

I do have to mention that there are of course certain things that web apps can’t do that native apps can. However, I think many developers are underestimating the abilities of the web. Browsers now support most of the features that was previously only accessed thorough native apps. You can access the camera and microphone. And as I previously stated: more features are to come.

The trend towards on-demand services are not only visible in the world of apps — there are many other sectors that are going towards the same destiny. Just think about our consumption of media: Torrenting music and movies was extremely popular just a few years ago and we never thought that it would loose its flavor. However, with services such as Spotify and Netflix offering on-demand movies and music there is little need for a consumer to download and store their media. It’s much easier to just access it whenever it is needed. And yes, of course torrents are still widely used and will still be because it has different perks that these services can not entirely fill, but one can not disregard the changes that have happened just in a few years.

I’ve made many point to why web apps are the future, but there are still many more to make. But I think it is clear that web apps will increase in usage over native apps as technology continues to develop and new actors enter the scene. Native apps will of course not go away entirely anytime soon; large and established companies will still continue to have their apps as they are already established (and might be part of the lucky 5) but newcomers will increasingly look towards the web for viral spreading of their service and product. With the barriers that exist for gaining users of a native app the question quickly becomes: Why would you want to develop a native app?

Please leave a comment if you have an opinion on the matter, and follow me on Medium while you're at it!

Javascript developer. Passionate learner.

Javascript developer. Passionate learner.