Web vs. Cross-Platform vs. Native App Development – Pros and Cons

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Mark Dabbs

04 Jan 2019 - 8 min read

When it comes to web app, cross-platform app and native app development, how do you decide which is the best approach for your next business project?


A mobile app is a business investment that warrants a due diligence effort to understand the pros and cons of your available options. Your research will need to consider the development resources you have available, a wide range of technical issues, and, most importantly, your target market. A thorough investigation will solidly guide you on whether a web, cross-platform or native app is the best match for your business case. It’ll help define your next-best option, too.

A lot of web vs. cross-platform vs native app development articles tend to focus heavily on the technical merits, cost, and ease of implementation. These points are all important, but they take a back seat to a proper understanding of your target market. Why? Clearly defining your target market can be the difference between success and failure. VisionMobile’s surveys over the years have shown that 15% of developers produce apps with no clear target market. Worse yet, up to 50% of developers spend little money or time on marketing or distribution beyond getting their app into Google Play or the App Store – and the same proportion of developers fail to break even.

Ultimately, your customers and audience will determine whether your mobile initiative is profitable or not. On that basis, we include some of the most important marketing considerations of each approach to help you define the sort of marketing and demographic research you should find.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Web Apps

The best thing about web apps is that they’re accessible to everyone with an Internet connection. The biggest problem is that, in today’s mobile world, most people spend very little of their time using mobile devices to browse the Internet. Of course, your business may not be concerned with most people, and that gets to the heart of a guest article we did for Gummicube on the matter of super-users. A short study of the Pareto Principle will show that 80% of revenues come from 20% of customers, and ultimately over 50% of revenue often comes from just 1% of customers. It’s a statistical rule of thumb that is surprisingly consistent across nearly all mobile commerce studies.

Web App Advantages

Web App Disadvantages

Least expensive option. App Usage. Mobile users tend to spend 90% of their time in apps vs browsing online.
Ubiquitous. Nearly all personal computers, tablets and smartphones have a browser like Chrome, Safari, Edge, Firefox, or Opera Mini. Most web apps only need a Javascript-enabled browser to work.An internet connection is required, and so is a mobile-friendly website. It’s estimated that 80% of small businesses still don’t have a responsive website.
Flexible development. Web apps can be developed using Sun Microsystems’ J2EE, Microsoft’s .NET, or Open Source platforms like PHP and MySQL.More complex to build. Native Apps may be simpler, owing to the overall combination of skill sets, back-end and scalability requirements, plus browser behaviors.
No installation required and easy to update. Updating the primary host server roles out the latest update to everyone, immediately.Old Browsers and plugins. Some users may not keep their browser and plug-ins up to date, so they may not be able to use your app or all of its features.
Scalability. Cloud-based Backend as a Service support offering pay-as-you-go billing often metered by the minute.Not displayed in stores like Google Play or Apple’s App Store.
Easier testing and debugging. Instead of having to test across hundreds of devices, you only need to test by browser and version.User Interfaces (UI) tend to lack sophistication and the app itself tends to have less access to mobile device features.
Centralized security. Most cloud services have very good security as it is. Amazon Web Services, for example, has not been hacked yet, though individual companies have been compromised due to configuration errors.Security risks, always an issue, but if your central server is hacked, all of your customer data could be compromised.

There are more marketing statistics than you can shake a stick at on usage of mobile devices compared to desktops and laptops. Audience demographics are always important. In this regard, if you know your target market is primarily comprised of people over 35 years of age, they still favor using desktops, but most also have smartphones, too. The time of day you expect people to use your app could also play a part- regular working hours of 10 AM to 6 PM is when most people are likely to be using a PC. Higher end purchasing decisions might be researched while on mobile, but completed on desktop, so that’s also a consideration.

Conversely, your target market could be your own employees with an aim to increase their productivity. You might also want to automate personal data security across all your electronic devices and databases. Both of these scenarios warrant considering web apps as the easiest and most economical solution.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Cross-Platform Apps

The expectations of cross-platform development are high: develop an app that runs everywhere and looks great, at less cost and within a shorter time frame. Many companies try to make cross-platform apps sound like a simple and universal solution to everything. Universalism implies that Android, iOS, and the mish-mash of other less-widely used platforms all have the same or easily convertible features and functionality, graphical capabilities, etc. Sadly, they don’t.

Write once – run everywhere does not always work. Don’t expect to get a double economy from that. At Reinvently, we have a methodology for helping decide between going with Cross-Platform or Native App Development:

  • If 50% of your project is UI, you want to look native – use native SDKs.
  • If 50% is business logic, complex calculations, game engines, etc. – go cross-platform.

Developing two native apps (like Android and iOS) equates to 2x the cost to develop an app. Making the same app cross-platform ideally gives you only 1.5x cost, which is an economy of 0.5x, not 2x.

Cross-Platform App Advantages

Cross-Platform App Disadvantages

Only one set of code is needed to support all of the platforms you need to include.Exceptions. It may be necessary to create separate solutions to make that single code base work with different platforms.
Faster development time compared to sequentially creating multiple apps for iOS and Android.Longer development time compared to creating different apps for iOS and Android.
A lower upfront cost to launch than creating multiple apps for iOS and Android.Higher long-term maintenance costs, as testing and debugging future versions can take up to three times longer than a native app.
Expanded Reach compared to just producing your app in Android or iOS. Unlike Web Apps, you can still distribute your app through the App Store and Google Play.Subject to more frequent changes as it needs to remain compatible with iOS, Android and other operating system updates.
Consistent Design Less feature flexibility
Internet connection not required. Accessible without a connection, Will update when a connection is re-established.Security. Some malicious files are designed to attack multiple platforms.

While there are some broad generalities in the pros and cons of cross-platform apps, the true difficulties become apparent depending on exactly what you intend to do with your app. Whereas web apps are the most universal and native apps are highly platform-specific, cross-platform development options cover everything in-between these two opposites. That brings us to whether you use will use a web-based, run-time or compile-time solution for your cross-platform app and the relative difficulties associated with each.

  • Compile-time solutions are the only choice when performance is the goal. Otherwise, they are really close to native development;
  • Run-Time solutions allow creating apps with a real native look and feel. However, they are quite risky because of their own APIs, and unsupported features;
  • Web-based solutions have a lot of restrictions due to their high-level environment. The maturity of web technologies and development community can cut some risks and help to provide maximum platform coverage.

When we take these points into consideration the following chart becomes useful for defining the ease or difficulty of implementing requirements more specifically:

RisksCompile-time solutionsRuntime solutionsWeb-based solutions
Only a small part of the code will be commonHighMediumLow
No standard frameworks availableHighMediumLow
Very complex architecture and codeHighMediumLow
Spaghetti codeHighMediumLow
Too much custom solutionsLowMediumMedium
Writing native codeLowMediumMedium
Cross-platform environment issuesLowHighMedium
Platform features not supportedLowHighMedium
UI Kit issuesLowMediumHigh
Troubles with debugging and bug fixingLowMediumHigh
Troubles with testingLowMediumHigh
No mobile expertise will have a negative effectHighMediumHigh
Need to learn the platform’s featuresHighMediumLow
Need to learn solution’s featuresLowHighLow

As can be expected, more complex code or more integrated third-party solutions require more development time and money. There is also the chance that despite your best efforts, the only viable solution will ultimately end up being to use custom native code.

The main problem with cross-platform development is the universalism. The universal solution can solve a variety of tasks, but it can’t solve tasks better than a specialized one. For instance, a computer mouse allows one to interact with any application, but it isn’t as comfortable as a joystick for gamers or a graphic tablet for painters.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Native Apps

Where a web app can be described as a jack-of-all-trades, native apps have the capability of being highly specialized. Native is all about performance, the ability to do things better than cross-platform or web apps – if, in fact, they can do them at all. This specialization is native’s greatest strength, yet the basis of its greatest weakness: cost.

Native app development is comparatively more expensive than web or cross-platform apps. But, it would be a grave mistake to make any decision on the basis of cost, without also assessing market potential with an eye on getting a return on your investment. For one thing, native apps provide for the most control of nearly all design elements directly impacting conversion and monetization rates. So, we’ll take a look at native’s core advantages and disadvantages first, and follow them with important distinctions specific to the native app market.

Advantages of Native Apps

Disadvantages of Native Apps

Strategic development and marketing options. Also likely to rank higher in app stores owing to native optimization vs. cross-platform apps.Most expensive option requires building and maintaining two apps if you want it to be available for both Android and Apple devices.
Better UI/UX potential allowing for more and better Micro UX elements for graphics and multimedia content. UI and UX directly impact monetization. Native apps are also best at maintaining aspect ratios (3:2, 8:5, 5:3, etc.).Longest development time unless you opt to build your Android and iOS apps simultaneously. Time is also required for app stores to approve your app to be available in their store.
Highest performance for speed and functionality. Native apps provide complete access to the device’s databases and hardware features unlike both web and cross-platform apps.Reduced reach or monetization opportunities if you develop only an Android or iOS app.
Internet connection not required. Accessible without a connection will update when a connection is re-established.Users must download first from the app store, install the app, open it and complete the sign-up before they can start to use it.
Best developer support via complete Software Development Kits (SDKs) to unlock all platform features.Commissions. Apple and Google take a 30% cut of any sales (reduced to 15% for subscription services).

Strategic development infers that native apps allow for investment strategies that web and cross-platform apps don’t. If you are focused specifically on the U.S. market, starting with Apple’s iOS devices puts you directly into the highest-paying of all mobile markets. iOS users represent nearly 64% of the U.S. market and have a long-established trend of spending roughly twice as much as Android users. Depending on your business goals, that could be enough to delay or completely forego creating an Android version.

Your business goal may focus on acquiring a massive volume of users or take aim at a more international audience. In that case, Android captures about 85% of the global market and a still respectable 34% share of the US market. In this case, you will likely want to explore app localization in detail to maximize your potential audience across multiple countries and languages. Incidentally, there are over 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States. More languages increase your development costs, but at a fraction of the app’s base cost with the exception of complex languages like Chinese or Arabic.

So, platform choice can boil down to whether you want to focus on 300 million English-speaking iOS “premium” users or up to 3 billion Android users with widely varying sub-markets. Moreover, you can also use one approach as a springboard into the second. Mobile strategists will, of course, want to dig deeper into how this might work with smaller app distribution stores, too.

TL;DR – Likely Starting Points for Your App

The following are some starting points that can be considered for clear-cut scenarios to help you narrow down your selection:

Web-first Apps are the likely best option if you are looking to increase office-based productivity or want to automate compliance to personal data security laws like GDPR. Web apps are universally accessible to anyone with a mobile device – and on that basis could compete against an Android-first app if you are pushing for market reach. The most important consideration of all will be your own marketing and demographic research. For global mobile, localization costs are likely to be lowest for JavaScript and HTML5 apps.

iOS-first Apps. If your budget and ROI are major concerns, consider an iOS-first launch for its more affluent audience. This is especially the case if you intend to focus only on developed markets where iOS dominates, like the United States. iOS benefits from a prestige factor naturally suited to high-end businesses and brands.

Android-first Apps are the best option if you want to engage Global Mobile because it dominates the global market (85% share). Android devices tend to be more affordable, playing into the purchasing habits of its user-base. Android could be the best option if you intend to monetize your app via advertising or user-data. You could also look at going big with Android outside of the US market to help facilitate your launch into the iOS market. That can be very tricky, but probably the best option if you have high ambitions while starting with a low budget.

Cross-Platform Apps are only required when you MUST be compatible with non-standardized, legacy or specialized devices. It’s entirely plausible to go cross-platform to just reach the Android and iOS market, but it could have a harder time competing with more specialized native apps in taking advantage of device features. Still, if you are aiming at mobile users vs. web users, cross-platform could be the best bet for your project.

How to Decide?

Ultimately, you should look to perform enough research so that the data makes the decision for you. Market research is probably more important than anything in defining your starting point. Who is your audience? What devices are they using? They may be using several over the course of a day. Then, you’ll probably want to know how they are using their device – like to just compare prices between different stores or to actually make purchases?

Once you have a starting point, then your research starts to get more technical. You may also have to fit your plans to a budget. Then there are situations where you’ll need a faster development solution to coincide with a major marketing campaign or new company initiative. These have to be weighed alongside all of the other factors that go into making a business investment.

Still can’t make a decision?

We’ve built many successful Web, iOS, Android and Cross-Platform apps – we’d love to help!

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