Mobile app vs. web app: which one to build first

11 min read
February 13, 2023

In today’s competitive software industry, apps that reach more users faster tend to have the upper hand over those that don’t.

That’s why it’s best to offer your services a web app and a mobile app. This ensures you give your users flexibility and convenience.

The problem, though, is that not every startup has the budget to develop both simultaneously.

So, which one do you prioritize in these cases?

That’s the question we’ll try to answer in this article.

What is a mobile app

A mobile application is a piece of software installed directly on the user’s smartphone or mobile device.

The user can download it from their app store, whether it’s the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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Generally, a mobile app is self-contained. It handles everything from processing the application logic to displaying the user interface. Because of this, apps can function offline.

However, some apps delegate some or all of the processing and data retrieval to an online server.

Mobile app API calls

Source: DZone

For example, the Netflix app must connect to its servers to access its vast library of movies and TV shows.

Mobile apps have access to the device’s hardware which boosts their functionality.

For example, Instagram can take pictures by tapping into the camera. Likewise, step trackers like Pacer use a phone’s built-in GPS to determine the distance a user has walked.

Pacer app interface

Source: Good Housekeeping

Mobile apps are platform-specific, which means they only work in one operating system (iOS or Android).

True, there are cross-platform apps that can be developed once and deployed to any device. But under the hood, these tools work by converting code into their respective native apps.

React Native code conversion

Source: Accenture

As a result, various programming languages are required to develop mobile apps, depending on the target OS.

For iOS apps, developers use Swift or Objective-C. Android developers can use Java, C++, or Kotlin. Those who prefer the cross-platform route can pick React Native or Xamarin.

What is a web app

A web application is a piece of software that sits on a remote server. Users then need to access it using their web browser.

At first glance, a web app is visually similar to a website. But the major difference is that users can interact with a web app like any other software.

A website, in contrast, is strictly for static reading only.

A simplified way of looking at it is that a web app is a dynamic and interactive website.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell:

Web app example

Source: Webopedia

Whenever the user does something on their device browser (such as clicking on a link or submitting a form), a request is sent to the server.

All the logic processing happens there. If needed, the server can also retrieve data from the database.

The server then sends relevant data and instructions to the browser, which displays them on screen.


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Because a web server is essentially online, it doesn’t need to be installed on a local machine.

Users can also access it anywhere, using any device (laptops, smartphones, or workstations), as long as there’s an internet connection.

Web app development is divided into two parts—front end and back end.

Back-end vs front-end

Source: Learn to Code in 30 Days

The back end is focused on application logic and database programming. The languages developers use here include PHP, SQL, Python, and Java.

The front end is concerned with the graphical user interface—the visible part of the web app. The technologies used here include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

It’s also possible to have a mobile app as the front end of a web app. These are called hybrid apps—essentially web browsers encased in a native app shell.

Hybrid web app

Source: Sani Yusuf

Nowadays, a large number of websites are web apps. Some popular ones include Google Mail, Asana, Facebook, and Microsoft Office 365.

Mobile app vs. web app: key differences

Now that we’ve defined web and mobile apps, let’s explore their differences, pros, and cons in greater detail.

Here’s an overview:

Mobile app vs web app

Source: Caspio

Generally, mobile apps take more time and money to develop. That’s because you need to create an app for every operating system you want to deploy it to.

This might also require separate development teams, which will further jack up the price.

Consequently, mobile apps are also harder to maintain than web apps.

If you need to update anything in a mobile app, you need to do it for every platform. Changes also aren’t deployed in real-time—users need to update their apps to reflect them.

In contrast, any changes in a web app are automatically applied to all users.

But one area where mobile apps shine is delivering a better user experience.

As we mentioned, they can deliver more advanced functionality because they have access to the underlying device hardware.

For instance, mobile games can have stunning 3D graphics with fluid, responsive animation. Web apps, on the other hand, are stuck with simplified visuals.

Web app example

Source: Naija Know How

Mobile apps can also work offline. This is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of great UX.

A mobile app doesn’t just break when there’s no internet connection—it provides a more elegant experience.

Even if the app needs to get data from a server, techniques like offline sync allow it to continue working. Data is then automatically updated when the connection is restored.

Offline sync for a mobile app

Source: Yalantis

Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of each, one question remains—which one do you go for?

Mobile app or web app: which one to build first?

The quick answer is that it’s best to have both web and mobile apps.

Notice that most platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have web and mobile app versions that work in synergy.

For instance, you can use the Asana app to get task updates while on the go, then switch to the web version when you get back to your workstation.

Sometimes, though, you can’t develop both right away. In these cases, the following questions can help you decide which to prioritize.

What are the limits of your budget?

Generally, mobile apps are more expensive to develop than web apps. Thus, starting with a web app might be better if you’re strapped for funds.

The amount varies, but you’re looking at around $38,000 minimum to create an app with average complexity. This goes even further if you deploy to more than one platform.

Mobile app development cost

Source: Mobiversal

In contrast, you can develop a simple web app for around $15,000. Plus, it can work for all users with just one development price.

Note that this is only a benchmark. The actual price will depend on many factors, such as your app’s complexity and requirements.

Therefore, it’s best to consult a development team (like DECODE) to figure out a more accurate price estimate.

Do you need the device’s native features?

While mobile apps have access to the device hardware, not every platform needs it.

For example, stunning graphics or camera support are unnecessary if you want to create a simple webmail app.

Therefore, you need to evaluate if your app needs these capabilities. If not, then a web app might be the better option.

Furthermore, website programming languages like HTML5 can now access hardware components like the camera or gyroscope.

Web app hardware access

Source: Addpipe

This means that basic device features are now accessible to web apps as well, which could impact your decision to use them.

Of course, they won’t be as efficient or fast as mobile apps, but they could suffice for simpler applications.

How quickly should the app be developed?

Generally, going with a web version is often better if you want to launch your app faster.

Development time is shorter because you only need to worry about developing one front-end and one back-end.

On average, the fastest time you can build a web app is around 3.5-4.5 months.

In contrast, mobile app development can take a minimum of 6 months in most cases. It could be even longer if you want to create a multi-platform app.

Average app development time

Source: Appinventiv

And that doesn’t count the time spent launching the app.

You see, both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store need to review your app before you can post it.

If you’re lucky, it can be approved in 24 hours. But if there’s an issue, expect it to stretch to days or weeks.

Plus, if the app is denied, you must fix and re-submit the problem. That takes additional time.

And your work doesn’t end there. Once it’s live in the app store, you need to spend time and effort promoting the mobile app through app store optimization (ASO) tactics.

Otherwise, people won’t download it.

How fast does the app need to be?

The speed of the app is also a critical consideration.

Some apps, like games, require real-time performance. In these cases, it’s paramount to pick the mobile app approach because a mobile app is much faster than a web app.

Again, it all boils down to the self-contained nature of mobile apps. Since all the processing and logic take place on the user’s device, performance tends to be faster.

In contrast, web apps need to send data constantly over the network. That makes them susceptible to latency.

Network latency

Source: Key CDN

Latency is the time it takes for data to travel from the server to the client, and back. This delay is why web apps don’t respond as quickly when you click on a link.

This problem is exacerbated when the Internet connection is slow.

Even in the best circumstances, it’s virtually impossible to have zero latency. Therefore, web apps will always have some delay compared to mobile apps.

How many users do you want to reach?

All things being equal, web apps can generally reach more users than mobile apps.

The reason is simple—web apps are more accessible. You don’t need to install them, and you can access them on any device. This appeals to a larger demographic.

In contrast, it’s harder to convince people to use a mobile app because they must spend time searching and installing it.

Plus, in some cases, the device’s specs might not be compatible with your app.

However, note that this varies by app niche.

For instance, a 2021 survey showed that more people were using mobile food apps than web food apps.

App vs website growth by industry

Source: Business of Apps

However, despite the rising popularity of mobile apps in certain niches, the easy accessibility of web apps makes them a better first choice when you want to make that initial splash in the market and reach a wide variety of users fast.

Will your app be used offline?

This is perhaps the easiest factor to base a decision on.

Opting for a mobile app is imperative if you need your app to work without an internet connection.

Good examples of offline-only apps include games, calculators, and other utility apps like maps or translators.

This is especially vital for utility apps with online capabilities. One example is Evernote, which stores notes on the cloud by default.

But its mobile app version allows you to continue taking notes even while offline, thanks to offline sync technology.

App offline mode example

Source: Evernote

In contrast, web apps are a good alternative if your app needs to function purely online—whether by choice or necessity.

Still can’t decide?

Of course, it’s possible that you still can’t decide whether to prioritize web apps or mobile apps.

In these cases, it’s best to seek the help of a development team like DECODE.

Using our years of experience, we’ll analyze your situation and help you pick the right path.

And don’t worry—consultations with us are free and covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for your peace of mind.

Interested? Get in touch with us today, and let’s talk!

Written by

Marko Strizic

Co-founder and CEO

Marko started DECODE with co-founders Peter and Mario, and a decade later, leads the company as CEO. His role is now almost entirely centred around business strategy, though his extensive background in software engineering makes sure he sees the future of the company from every angle. A graduate of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s fascinated by the architecture of mobile apps and reactive programming, and a strong believer in life-long learning. Always ready for action. Or an impromptu skiing trip.

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