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MOBILE-IZE THIS: Native App vs. Mobile Web – Laying the Groundwork for Mobile Experimentation


The fuel driving mobile’s relentless growth is primarily app usage, which alone makes up a majority of total digital engagement at 52 percent, according to comScore’s “U.S. Mobile App Report.” But confusion still exists within the industry. For nearly a decade consumers have jumbled native apps and mobile web by bundling them into the all-encompassing “mobile.”

Let’s start with defining the difference. Here’s the breakdown.

A native app is downloaded from an online store such as the the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store. The app is installed and runs as a standalone application without a web browser. Companies frequently have native apps in addition to their websites (desktop, mobile, tablet).  So how do you know if it’s native app or not?  If you are shopping, requesting a ride, or playing a game that you downloaded from an app store, it’s a native app.  If you are accessing a browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) to type in a search or site address, it is not a native app.

From a technical perspective, native apps require specific languages. For example, the iPhone operating system, iOS, requires Objective-C, Android uses Java and Windows Mobile utilizes C+. Native apps require updates, which can make them more expensive to develop and maintain. However, they often operate faster than mobile web apps. Since native apps operate through a third-party (an app store), they’re regulated and must comply with rules and restrictions, which can change over time.  Native apps have different complexities when it comes to experimentation, which we’ll dive into further in our next post.  

Mobile web experiences are Internet-enabled sites that deliver content through web browsers on your mobile device. In other words, they do not need to be downloaded from an app store to be accessible, and they work interchangeably between different operating systems.  For example, you can access www.brooksbell.com from a desktop, mobile, tablet with no downloading required.  If you can access it through a simple search or typing in the url, it’s mobile web.  

Mobile web experiences sometimes have an m. (m dot) url, meaning that the mobile experience has a different code base than the desktop (www) site.  An alternative approach is building a site to be responsive, which makes web pages render well on a variety of devices and window or screen sizes by using proportion-based grids and flexible images so that it can easily adjust to the device specs.  

The advantage of Mobile Web (m dot or responsive) is that you can have a specific experience designed for mobile without having to deal with the nuances and resource commitment of managing a native app.

From a development perspective, mobile web uses a variety of languages, including JavaScript, 
, CSS3 and other web application frameworks. Unlike native apps, mobile web updates don’t involve a third party like an app store.  Mobile web updates take place the same way you would update your desktop site.  A benefit to this is that all users that can access the mobile web experience will see the most recent code push. This is a pain point with native apps, as your user base is fragmented depending upon which version of the app they have downloaded.

For companies, choosing the right type of mobile experience matters, and determining whether to invest in a native app, or mobile web is complicated. Ultimately, the answer depends on your business goals and specific experimentation objectives.  

We haven’t touched on the ways experimentation varies in these scenarios, but our next posts will!  Spoiler alert – they are very different and require different resources, planning and expectations!  

Up next, we’ll discuss “The Ins and Outs of Native App Testing.”  And after that, you guessed it, “The Ins and Outs of Mobile Web.”

Mike Adams, VP of Optimization Engineering
Mike heads up our team of optimization engineers and oversees strategies as the team executes tests for clients including Barnes & Noble, Toys R Us, and Consumer Reports. He has over fifteen years of experience in web development, having previously worked for a digital agency in North Carolina. Mike is a graduate of ECPI College of Technology in Raleigh, NC with a focus in Web Development and IT.

Suzi Tripp, Sr. Director of Experimentation Strategy
At Brooks Bell, Suzi sets the course of action for impact-driving programs while working to ensure the team is utilizing and advancing our test ideation methodology to incorporate quantitative data, qualitative data, and behavioral economics principles. She has over 14 years of experience in the industry and areas of expertise include strategy, digital, communications, and client service. Suzi has a BS in Business Management with a concentration in marketing from North Carolina State.