Published on
Mar 30, 2023

Progressive Web Apps vs. Native Mobile Apps

4 Min Read
Table of contents

Are PWAs Better Than Native Mobile Apps for Custom Software?

With the ever-growing popularity of smartphones, companies are looking for ways to make their products and services more accessible to their customers through mobile applications. With so many options on the market, deciding which technology is best can take a lot of work. Should you develop a traditional mobile app? Or is a progressive web app a better fit for your needs?

This article outlines the critical differences between native mobile and progressive web apps. Let's look at the key differences between these two application types to understand better which is best for your business goals.

First, let’s define what is meant by “mobile application” and “progressive web app” (PWA).

Native Mobile App: A native mobile app is an application that is made specifically for mobile devices and is downloadable via Google and Apple’s app stores. After being installed, mobile apps are always accessible on a user's device menu.  Users have the ability to do anything ranging from taking photos, sending messages, or even trading stocks.

Native mobile applications are primarily developed in a device-specific programming language. For instance, iOS applications are built using Objective-C and/or Swift, while Android applications are most likely built in Java or Kotlin.

Progressive Web App: A progressive web app is a web-based application built and hosted on the internet but has similar capabilities to a mobile app. Among other capabilities, PWAs have the ability to install an app icon, record content, send messages, and even receive real-time push notifications. They do not need to be hosted on the app store and are built using Javascript with HTML & CSS.

mobile software application

PWAs Are More Affordable to Develop and Maintain

Developing a traditional mobile app is expensive, especially if you want it to be available on iOS and Android platforms. Progressive web apps are much more affordable because only one codebase needs updates. Due to the singular codebase, PWAs are also easier to maintain in the long run. As a part of regular maintenance, both mobile apps must have code changes that fix bugs while improving performance and security. Double the code, double the cost.

The big difference between a native mobile application and a PWA is that changes to a native codebase will require the development team to push those changes to the app stores and wait for a user to download the changes (if ever) to their mobile app. For a PWA, this is not a problem as every time the PWA runs on the mobile device, it can pull the latest version of the app to keep its active users up to date, reducing reported bugs and compatibility issues across your user base as the app.

They Work Offline (And on Any Device)

One of the best things about PWAs is their ability to work offline like a native app. Users can still access their content even if they don't have an internet connection. Additionally, because there is no need to download anything, progressive web apps are usable on any device with a browser —including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. When the device reconnects to the internet, it syncs data and receives notifications.

In many of our partner business' operating areas, internet service can be intermittent at best and non-existent at worst. Steelhead has repeatedly developed stable and reliable mobile applications for field workers that are fully operational without an internet connection and can then sync data back up to the home server after an internet connection becomes available.

PWAs Skip the App Stores

One of the most significant advantages of PWAs is that you can go through something other than Apple's App Store or Google’s Play Store to get them onto users’ mobile devices. This can save a lot of time and money and give you more control over the distribution of your app.

The time and cost savings can be dramatic over the operational lifetime of the project. For example, a PWA in a production-ready environment can be hosted with a minimal self-hosted server and cached by CDNs (content delivery networks) to make it publicly available for minimal cost. Google and Apple require business accounts to be registered and renewed annually to have apps in their app stores. Every major release of each phone’s operating system introduces breaking changes and new requirements that applications must follow. These mandatory changes sometimes take developers hours to modify, test, review, and deploy.

Finally, every time a new app update is deployed to the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store, the app must undergo an app review by the stores. These reviews can take anywhere from 48 hours to 7 business days!

Despite a PWA’s attractiveness due to cost, sometimes companies still want their apps to be hosted in the app stores to compete with their competitors. Well, good news! In early 2020 announcements from both Google and Apple stated that PWAs could now be distributable via their app stores. It does add some overhead for progressive web apps but can be a great middle-ground attempt to gain market share across multiple channels.

PWAs Are Discoverable on Search Engines

Another significant advantage of PWAs is that they're discoverable via search engines, unlike traditional mobile apps. PWAs are websites optimized for the mobile experience and can rank online using search engine optimization (SEO). SEO website discoverability means appearing in search results when people are looking for what your app offers.

In other words, Google does the hard work of attracting users to your app based on what they search for. Adoption of mobile apps can be hit or miss depending on the use case, so if you want to nudge your users more strongly to jump into an app-like experience, the PWA approach works very well. For B2C applications, app discovery is an essential aspect of your marketing strategy. In that case, a PWA can be a great differentiator that floats you to the top amongst the ocean of competition in the app stores.

Both Offer a Great User Experience

Progressive web apps offer a great user experience thanks to their app-like design and functionality. Being fast and responsive is a big priority for the native mobile app market. PWAs can offload work into background processes called service workers; Service workers allow progressive web apps to be fast and responsive, despite running in a mobile browser.

Many F500 companies support PWA experiences on their main sites because they understand not all of their users want yet another mobile app downloaded to their phone but still want a highly dynamic and personalized experience.

To give a more concrete example of what a successful progressive web app can look like, check out Starbucks’ consumer-facing app (

We have successfully implemented several custom PWAs at Steelhead Software as a significant first step in measuring traction for a fully native app idea. Businesses can more quickly realize an ROI on their tech investment with a progressive web app and decide later if they want to invest further in a native app experience.

PWA Permissions Are Limited to the Browser Device Permissions

One unfortunate downside of a progressive web app is that the browser running the PWA must have any device permissions needed to use the functionality in the PWA (such as push notifications, camera, or microphone). In an increasingly privacy-conscious world, some users hesitate to provide those permissions, impacting a PWA’s ability to function fully.

There are quite a few differences between using progressive web apps over traditional mobile apps. A PWA might be a better first step if you're considering developing an app for your business. Not only are they more affordable and easier to develop, but they also have most of the features native apps offer!

By understanding the differences between the two everyday mobile experiences, your business can identify the best technology for your digital strategy. If you’re unsure about what's next in the software development process, reach out! Steelhead Software partners with you to formulate the plan, design the application, and execute it to meet your business’ technology goals.

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Paul Ivanov

Co-Founder & Principal Developer, Steelhead Software