PWA or native app: what’s the best technology for your E-commerce?

Even though the App Store became popular in 2013, the first mobile applications were launched five years earlier. Progressive Web App (PWA) on the other hand, is a more recent form of digital innovation created by Google, gaining in popularity due to its remarkable yet simplistic features. Between a native app and a PWA, it can be hard for retailers to choose the best technology to reach their goals.

Both have their advantages, but they don’t necessarily correspond to an E-commerce’s brand, their customers’ needs, or the company goals. Let’s take a look at the positive points, and the not so bright sides of both.

hand holding a mobile phone in front of a rail of clothes. Text on phone's screen: No online shopping today!

What is a native app ? 

Native applications are coded in a platform-specific programming language making them accessible from an Android or iOS platform, employing, for example, Java. Most of the time, a native app doesn’t require an Internet connection to work, since the cache is stored within the device. Native apps are obtainable through an app store, like Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. 

If we had to choose 3 of the best features of a native app, here’s what we would say: 

Access to device features

Native apps are designed for one type of device at a time. This means that they can access and make use of the features which are present on said device (contact list, camera, bluetooth, GPS...).

Searching for a native app is a reflex 

Searching for a native app and downloading it is currently the most common in terms of consumer's behaviour. Most of the apps we have on our phones are native apps. If users need a new app or tool, they will automatically think to look for it in their app store.

Security 

The data formed by a native app starts on the mobile device where it is installed, and native apps are, most of the time, safe and secure. This aspect is more and more important with the rise of consumer awareness, and new laws regarding user data protection. 

But, not every aspect of a native app is optimal for a retailer’s experience

The main issue with choosing a native app as a channel is that there is absolutely no flexibility. Developers have to create an app per platform, coding separately for Android and iOS. You may need to hire multiple teams of developers if you want your application to be used on different sorts of devices. This costs of developing a native app can be considered as an investment, but it also can be a risk in terms of discoverability. App Stores don’t display all apps equally across categories and the algorithms ranking the native apps are based on criteria known and sometimes unknown, especially for the Apple App Store.

Not to mention the struggle in terms of rapid and frequent content updates for marketing and operational teams. When new content or features are created, their release requires an update to the app, which must then be approved by the app store before the app can be updated by the user. Certain elements of a native app can be configured remotely, to allow new content to display without an app update. But this also requires extra development. 

A native app will also take up considerable space on a user's phone. It's now customary for users to download an app for a short period, and as soon as they're done with their transaction, they'll delete it to free up space. Not great for retention purposes and retailers may miss out on being able to contact dormant users with reactivation campaigns.

What is a PWA? 

Progressive Web App is a website that combines the functionalities of a native app and a responsive website.

Taking advantage of new programming web interfaces (API) which are linked to progressive improvement strategy, a PWA deploys on any device and integrates the available features of the device and the browser used - all from a single codebase!

The concept of a PWA takes advantage of a headless technology. In a headless approach, the frontend and backend of your eCommerce store are "decoupled"; they are independent of each other. This means that the content presentation layer is separated from the platform administration. An e-commerce can create a PWA powered storefront without making any changes to its existing backend.

If we had to choose 3 of the best features of a PWA, here’s what we would say: 

Customization

Designing a user experience that meets your clients' business challenges is key for success. A PWA provides a flexible and customizable system that allows you to improve the user interface while serving your brand identity. Building custom modules to create everything your E-commerce site needs has never been easier. 

Flexibility

PWAs are accessible from any device with a supporting browser, and are even accessible in the Play store. If you choose to go with a headless PWA, it is possible  to evolve the front and back independently by two teams with different skills: digital and business oriented for the front and technical for the back. The flexibility within the PWA approach brings the necessary agility to today’s E-commerce context. You can also add an icon to your phone to launch the app, just like a native app. The bonus being that a PWA takes up a lot less of your phone's memory space.

Speed

As a retailer, you know how important fast content loading to your website is. You’re probably already aware that Google carefully watches this aspect of your E-commerce, factoring it into your search ranking. PWAs are designed for speed and accessibility, almost making them a technical necessity in today's market.

In spite of its qualities, we also note the disadvantages of a PWA: 

The main con of a PWA is that not all browsers can access device hardware features. For example, access to Bluetooth or the camera isn’t always automatic. However Chromium based browsers are pretty advanced in regards to this. 

They are not yet fully available in app stores (just a few can be found on the Play Store, eg. Pinterest Lite), which delegitimizes the app in the eye of the consumer/user.

They also drain a phone’s battery quicker than a native application due to accessing several servers at a time.

It’s not possible to run a PWA on an iOS device with a version inferior to iOS 11.3. The same goes for older devices with out of date browsers.

When comparing a native app to a PWA, here's our take away:

Advantages of a native app

  1. Access to the device features
  2. App store presence
  3. Security

Disadvantages of a native app

  1. Develop an separate app per platform
  2. Each update or new feature requires app store validation
  3. Takes up considerable space on a user's phone

Advantages of a PWA

  1. Take up less space on a phone
  2. Flexibility
  3. Speed

Disadvantages of a PWA

  1. Limited browser support
  2. They drain a phone’s battery quicker
  3. Delegitimized by App store absence

We hope that this article helped you decide what’s the best solution for you. It’s clear to see the advantages of a PWA for retailers outweigh the disadvantages. You can contact us any time if you need more information or help picking out the best solution to adopt for your business.

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