How Do Progressive Web Apps Really Compare to Native Apps?

There are several effective ways to go “mobile first” and create a mobile experience that really meets the expectations of modern users. First, there is responsive web design, which creates a mobile friendly web experience that is frankly the bare minimum.

Then there are native mobile apps that users can download from the app stores and add to the home screen of their mobile devices. Apps are a better mobile UX, and can harness the features of the device more effectively, although they are traditionally expensive and time consuming to build.

Recently, we’ve seen the entry of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) into the arena, which takes an approach midway between mobile websites and mobile apps.

The business owner's questions on trying to decide - What is best for my company: how do progressive web apps really compare to native apps?

It seems like a simple enough question to answer: Is there a difference between progressive web apps (PWAs) and native apps? Yes.

If so, what are those differences and how do you choose between a native app and a progressive web app for your company’s mobile presence? That depends.

Let’s go into a bit more depth and break down the key differences between PWAs and native apps.

What is a Progressive Web App?

They are mobile sites built with modern JavaScripts frameworks, designed to work like a native app. They can be added to a mobile device’s home screen with an icon. Like apps, they offer a full-screen experience to engage users. With the development of Service Workers, PWAs do get some more benefits that native apps have, however, these benefits are still limited, particularly on iOS.

Google defines PWA’s as web experiences that are:

- Reliable: Load instantly and never show a website as being down, even in uncertain network conditions.

- Fast: Respond quickly to user interactions with silky smooth animations and no janky scrolling.

- Engaging: Feel like a natural app on the device, with an immersive user experience.

Key Differences


A key difference between PWAs and native apps is the way the end user accesses them.

Native applications are found and installed through an app store, such as Google Play or Apple’s iOS App Store. App Stores act as a massive shopping window, the gateway towards all services and content people consume on their mobile devices.

This all means that when you develop a native app, you have to submit it for consideration to Google and Apple. Apple in particular has quite stringent requirements and it will take some effort to prepare it up to their standards. Then it’s up to the user to find the app, read the description and reviews, and determine if it’s worth installing on their device.

PWAs, on the other hand, help you avoid dealing with the process of app store submission. Instead, PWAs run on the mobile device’s browser. Users access a PWA simply by inputting the URL in the mobile browser. However, once they do discover it, it’s easy enough to save the PWA to the home screen and find it there just as they would a native app.

Cross-Platform Availability

Since developers usually design an app specifically for iOS or Android users, this ensures that the experience within the native app is tailor-made to each platform. Developers have to worry less about cross-browser or platform compatibility and more on shaping their app for one specific mobile device. This has exceptions of course, like if you build hybrid apps or use a cross platform framework like React Native.

Progressive web apps, on the other hand, generally take a different approach. Developers create the responsive instance of the PWA, publish it, and then leave it to the user’s browser to display it correctly within the screen’s parameters.

The one point worthy of note here, however, is that the interface of the PWA typically attempts to strike a balance between what you’d find with a responsive website and what you’d encounter in a native app.

Offline Usage

One of the great things mobile apps can do for the end user is giving them the ability to access the information they want without having to be connected to the Internet.

What used to be a prerogative of apps, is now coming to the web as well. A PWA is a web-based app that gets installed on your system and, where possible, works offline utilizing cached data. Service workers are the most important technology allowing offline use in PWAs.

There’s a tradeoff here, as you might imagine. A PWA can serve certain parts of the app to users when their device is unable to connect to a network. However, a PWA cannot serve all parts of the app to them; specifically, anything that isn’t part of the page’s natural caching system will be offline until connectivity is restored. So, if a user wanted to submit a contact form to Forbes or make a reservation on Trivago, they’d be unable to do so.

Native apps definitely win in this category. While it’s great that the technology of PWAs is catching up and allowing users to access cached content, they’re just not quite at the point of being able to tap into a mobile device to stay connected no matter what.

Storage, Data, and Power

When a native app is installed on a mobile device, it’s going to pull directly from the device’s resources.

For “heavier” apps, ones that users interact with frequently, or those they forget to close altogether – resource use in terms of power/battery, storage space and mobile data use can be significant.

PWAs can also cause similar drainage issues. The Safari app causes nearly as much of a burden as the most commonly used apps on the phone. Really, what it boils down to is:

- How well-coded the app is

- How many resources the app calls on

- The user’s actual usage of it

If you’re trying to reach an audience that lives in a region where data networks tend to be more expensive and users unable to pay for it, then a PWA is going to be the best option.


For native apps, there are two chances for them to show up in search results.

- Within the App Stores

- In search engines

However, both of these depend on a number of superficial factors since the pages of the app itself cannot be indexed and listed in search engines. Instead, you have to do what’s known as App Store Optimization (ASO). This involves app search optimization tactics like:

Identify a commonly searched-for keyword (in the app store) that aptly applies to your mobile app and include it in your app title and description. Use a strong title/headline that includes your selected keyword.

Develop a snappy and yet thoughtful description of your app. You want to quickly appeal to app store users, but also make sure they understand what they get from the app experience. Make sure the keyword is included here, too!

Customer ratings play a huge part in a native app’s overall success, which means they’re going to factor in with SEO as well. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask current users to leave you a review (which you can do with Push Notifications).

You will also want to see that download number go up as well. Pitted against competitive apps that don’t have as many downloads or aren’t as well-reviewed, this form of social proof will help you attract new users.

Now, a progressive web app, on the other hand, will do well in terms of web SEO as it works like any other website you’d encounter online and its contents are indexed by Google and Bing.

Cleveroad highlights that this instant use opportunity for PWA may allow a higher volume of traffic to reach your PWA than your mobile app in an app store initially.

Push Notifications

Push notifications are one of the key reasons why many site owners and businesses are building a mobile app.

You can build the functionality needed for push notifications from the ground up, or easily integrate existing push notification solutions into a native app using a third party push notification service such as Google Firebase, PushBots, or OneSignal.

You can also use Push Notifications in Progressive Web Apps, thanks to the development of Service Workers.

However, at this point, Push Notification support is still limited to Chrome, Firefox and Opera and Mac Safari, and crucially is not available on iOS. This means that you can start using Push Notifications to engage your audience with a PWA on Android, but if you want to do the same to your iOS visitors, you’re going to have to wait.

PWAs are definitely making progress when it comes to push notifications, however, Native Apps are the clear leaders in this category. Native apps can support push notifications on both iOS and Android devices making them the right choice for any website owner who wants to engage their audience through this powerful medium.


Native apps have the capability to be a secure solution for both the app owner and users. It’s easier to use Multi-Factor Authentication in a native app than in a PWA which is useful if an app has login functionality. Multi-factor authentication adds a large layer of security to native apps.

Native Apps can also use certificate pinning to prevent certain kinds of attacks, which in-browser apps such as PWAs can’t emulate. Despite this advantage for Native Apps, PWAs are still served over HTTPS which does allow for browser-to-server encryption. As long as the website owner has created a secure environment for the PWA, it can be just as secure as any website.

However, to get your native app published on the iOS and Android Google Play and iOS App Stores, they have to be authorized by either Apple or Google first. Apps that present clear security issues for users are highly unlikely to get accepted, so in the majority of cases an app downloaded from these sources will be trustworthy.


Finally, we come to the matter of cost and the time to launch.

A native app — if truly native — is generally built with Java or Kotlin for Android or Objective-C or Swift for iOS.

The downside of this approach is that it necessitates a long, sometimes drawn-out development process which gets duplicated for each platform. Additionally, there’s a high cost of maintenance for native apps. Native apps will generally cost $50,000 to $100,000 to get first versions out on iOS and Android, and another 20% of that annually for maintenance and updates.

They will also take several months to build at a minimum.

There are cross-platform development frameworks such as React Native, which can help offset these drawbacks by making a large portion of the code reusable between iOS and Android.

At the same time, if your audience consists of users on both platforms, you’ll have to either ignore one subset of users entirely or shoulder the additional burden of dual development.

When developing your native app in-house, you’re looking at 2 additional hires and existing staff time spent commenting and testing, at a minimum. You might also have to consider the cost of outsourcing development if your team isn’t capable of handling it on their own.

With these high barriers, building native apps becomes a big, risky challenge for smaller businesses.

The progressive web app, at its core, is basically a web app built in any one of a number of ways (although React.js and other similar frameworks are certainly popular), with the addition of service workers.

Developers need to replicate a lot of what the native and mobile SDKs already provide, so it still means investing in research and development, the same as you would with native app development. Building PWAs is significantly easier than building native apps though – and the costs in both time and money reflect that.


There are numerous other important factors when deciding between native app and progressive web app – like performance, quality of design, and so forth. What much of that boils down to though is the quality of coding; not whether the app is native or exists in a web browser. When it comes time to make a decision, be sure that your choice of development path (as well as developer) can match up with each of those expectations.

If your users will lose out on an experience that’s critical to the native app (like push notifications or geofencing) because of the perceived high costs of building one, then you may need to reconsider your budget as the money spent on a PWA vs native app could end up being a waste. On the other hand – do you really need to build a native app from scratch, considering the steep costs? Do you need to use the phone’s accelerometer and facial recognition? If the answer is no, then your optimal solution will be a PWA.

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