I'm often asked which is the better approach to mobile applications (apps) - a native app or a mobile web app - for accessing information via smartphones. This question has become increasingly relevant given the tremendous potential impact of mHealth on physician adoption of IT. In fact, physicians continue to adopt smartphones at a greater rate than the consumer market, therefore, this question will become increasingly relevant for organizations and vendors to consider as part of their mobile strategy.
If I had been asked this question only a few years ago, I would've undoubtedly said native apps are preferable if only because cellular networks and Wi-Fi connectivity were not nearly as widespread as they are today. Similarly, device browsers and form factors have greatly improved, making browsing and navigating the mobile web much more useful. Owing to at least these two important factors, the decision to go native or mobile web is not nearly as cut and dry as it has been historically.
Essentially, a native app refers to an application that is installed on a mobile device (usually a smartphone). Although apps developed for and distributed through Apple's iTunes App/Store predominate, other mobile platforms, namely Android and to a lesser extent BlackBerry, are beginning to make headway in the native app space. Still, people tend to think of Apple devices when discussing apps, if only because more data exists on their distribution and use, due in part to the closed ecosystem that Apple has created via the App Store model.
In simplest terms, a mobile web app is an icon on a device's home screen that links to a website that is optimized for a smartphone's mobile browser. Currently, most web apps require connectivity (either Wi-Fi or cellular) for use, although this could change to the extent that web apps begin to use HTML5, Google Gears, or Widgets to deliver content.
So which is the better app approach? Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is, it depends. There are advantages and disadvantages to both shown in the following table:
Whether a native or web app strategy is pursued can depend upon many factors including some of the following:
- Support environment - Does the organization have the IT support infrastructure to support devices installed on mobile (remote) devices that may not be easily retrievable (e.g., physicians who practice one day/week at the hospital)?
- Device ownership and management - Are devices provided to end users by the organization or do users provide their own devices? Is there a narrow and tightly managed list of supported devices or is it a take all comers approach?
- Version control - Does the organization require lengthy internal certification before accepting newer versions of apps?
- The number of users - Does the need organization need to support the deployment and administration for a select number of users or many hundreds of users (e.g., an entire staff of physicians)?
- Connectivity - How widely available and stable is Wi-Fi and/or cellular connectivity (e.g., hospitals are historically inconsistent with respect to Wi-Fi and cellular access)?
Ultimately, the ideal position for both a vendor and a customer/end user is to be able to offer and use either or both application options.