Do We Still Need Mobile Apps?

Between around 2009 and 2019, it seemed like every business, every web site, every university, etc, had a mobile app on both the Android and iOS app stores.  If you didn't have a mobile app, you weren't cool, plain and simple. You were behind the times. 

But these days, with so many junk apps out there, and with the mobile web being easier than ever to develop, do we really still need mobile apps at all?


Progressive Web Apps

Before we get started, I want to make it clear that I am not discussing Progressive Web Apps, something which is largely for Android, and still requires an intermediate-to-advanced knowledge of programming to pull off well.  For the purposes of this post, I will be discussing plain responsive web apps/sites.


Upsides of Going With Mobile Web Sites (AKA Web App)

Instead of programing "native" apps for Android, iOS, and variants between tablets and phones, why not just create responsive, mobile-friendly web sites instead?  This of course won't work for every type of app (most notably complex games), but the pro's to using a normal web site over an app are compelling:

  • Instant code updates.
  • Easier to program and maintain, as there is only one code base, using your favorite web languages.
  • No fighting Apple's policies; no approval process at all.
  • Easy to check error logs when a bug occurs for a user.
  • Truly cross-platform.
  • Instant access, no downloading.
  • Easy to tell people where to go to access.
    • A web address instead of telling them to search on the app store, or worse, giving them a QR code to scan.
  • Continuity between desktop version and mobile version.
  • SEO and traditional marketing cheaper vs marketing for native apps.
  • Persistent state across all users (if you want that sort of thing).
  • Easy to have native-looking screens & touch elements (ex: jQuery Mobile)
    • ex: 


Downsides of Using Mobile Web Instead of Native App

Of course, at the time of this writing, there are still some downsides to only creating responsive mobile sites (rather than a native app).

  • Not included in the "App Store"
    • This is a big one for a lot of businesses.  Even though there isn't really an SEO strategy for the app store, and traffic to a web site is far cheaper than attracting users to download your app, there is still a level of prestige involved in telling someone you have an app.
    • Of course, if you only have a presence in the app store, you then have to tell people how to find your app.  Either give them directions on what to search for, or a clunky QR code to scan with a different app.  Then they have to install it.  All in all, it's not a great experience compared to just typing in a URL.
  • Doesn't automatically get added to home screen/desktop
    • While it's true that you can add JavaScript prompts to ask folks to add your web to the home screen (basically as a bookmark), most users won't.  And there is indeed something nice about having an icon right there on the device, just one tap away.
  • Monetization isn't as straight-forward
    • Making money from a mobile web app isn't always as easy as a native app.  With a native app, you can just charge a price to download.
    • However, if you intend to make use of a subscription model (ex: $10 per month), then monetization is much easier with a web app.  You can use well-established e-commerce solutions (like PayPal) to manage that, rather than dealing with the clumsy nature of in-app purchases.  Plus, you don't have to share your profits with Apple or Google.
  • Not as many hardware features
    • This is partly true.  For example, the accelerometer, camera, local storage, etc, are not as easy to access from a web app, unless you have advanced programming skills.  However, I would argue that you would need advanced programming skills anyway to program native apps.


A Proposal For Moving Forward

In the end, native apps might still be the preferred route for some companies, largely because they just want a mobile app with their name on it.  They like the app store, and they want users to see an icon on their home screen without a lot of trouble to get it there.

The solution, then, is simple:  Google and Apple need to have a segment of their stores specifically for web apps.  At the time of this writing, Google does indeed allow Progressive Web Apps to be submitted, but as I mentioned earlier, this is a special kind of web site which requires more overhead to keep up with than a standard web site.  And at the moment, Apple shows no signs of supporting Progressive Web Apps at all.

Until then, I think businesses need to be comfortable with the idea of sending their users to a web site for mobile functionality, instead of an app store.