Mobile Apps vs Web Apps – which do I need?

Anyone with a smartphone will use a multitude of mobile apps on an ongoing basis, and why not? You’ve got the power and functionality that these apps provide literally at your fingertips.

Due to the popularity of mobile apps, we regularly get approached with requests that people want an app for their business or start-up. This could be because they use and understand how easily they can be consumed or because apps are simply the flavour of the day.

The hard reality is that mobile apps require loads of time to be designed, developed, and launched by a skilled tech team, costing a lot more money than anticipated.

Many people without a tech background often don’t understand this, they just see the app icon, a few buttons, and screens and think “gosh, this looks easy!”.

Don’t worry we’re not going to explain to you how source code, APIS, and Databases work in this article, but rather we’re going to explain the best way to approach understanding the need for a mobile app for your company or startup.

So what are mobile apps?

We’re pretty sure you already know the answer to this one but mobile apps (or applications) are programs that are installed and run on smartphones such as Apple iPhones, Android, and Windows phones.

Each has a unique design and provides the user with a bunch of functionality, which vary from app to app.

Here are some examples of mobile apps: Shazam (that really cool app that helps you identify music), Whatsapp, Instagram, etc.

Now that you know what mobile apps are let’s talk about web apps.

What exactly are web apps?

Web apps can be thought of as powerful websites that run in a web browser that provide users with a whole lot of functionality. For example, would be considered a web app.

How do mobile apps compare to web apps?


The main difference to the user of the apps is that the mobile apps are installed on the smartphone and accessed by clicking on the icon of the mobile app.

Web apps on the other hand get accessed purely through the web browser. The web browser is actually an app itself and often comes pre-installed on the mobile phone. For example, Apple provides the Safari web browser by default, Android devices come with the Google Chrome web browser installed out of the box.

In order for the users to access the web app, they need to go to the web browser and search for the website (web app) that they want to access, the web app then loads in the web browser and walla! you’re in.

In case you didn’t already know, you can bookmark the web app to your desktop screen as an icon and load it the same way as a mobile app (click the icon).

So the biggest initial point about mobile apps compared to web apps is the convenience factor of having it installed and clickable as an icon.


It’s also important to note that not all mobile apps are able to run as web apps. For example, Shazam, as we mentioned earlier, can only really run as a mobile app as it uses the device’s recording functionality to listen to the music.

What this means is that mobile apps can access more of the mobile phone’s capabilities to provide more power and flexibility to the end-user. How cool is that?


A major benefit of web apps is that they just need a web browser to run on and all phones have this pretty much pre-installed. Yes, some really entry-level feature phones don’t render all websites and web apps properly but these are not the focus of this article, we’re talking about smartphones here.

So the user doesn’t need to install any new apps but they can just access the web app through the browser.

Many companies that launch apps find that they need to make updates to cater to varying screen sizes and also for bugs and issues that are specific to the certain phone makes and models. This is tricky and requires a lot of effort to test, develop solutions and launch an updated version of the mobile app, which and can prove to be a pain in the butt (and the wallet).


Some people are of the view that they don’t want too many mobile apps installed on their phone but would prefer to have a smaller selection of apps and access the rest through their web browser. There’s even a term called “app culling” (yes it does actually exist), where people cull inactive apps from their phones to free up space and declutter their phone, shame for those poor little apps that got the boot. Toodaloo!

If you only have a mobile app for your business (not a web app version) and your mobile app is deemed to be “culled” this is bad news. This spells the end of the user engaging with you. It’s definitely good to have a fallback option of a web app for users who do not want to use the mobile app.


Besides the advantage of the mobile app, being able to access the device’s capabilities the other major advantage is push notifications.

Push notifications are notifications that are sent to a mobile phone through the installed mobile app. This is quite useful as you are able to prompt the user to engage with a call to action notification. In other words, you nudge the user to re-engage with the mobile app through clever wording and messaging.

Web apps on the other hand don’t offer this functionality which is one of the reasons people decide to develop a mobile app.


Mobile apps release updates from time to time, which typically include bug fixes, new features and functional enhancements.

You may not be running the latest version of mobile and now you need to update your software. This isn’t the biggest problem in the world but you could be stuck with a limited amount of mobile data or simply you don’t want to update the mobile app. Now you’re not able to benefit from the latest features.

Web apps on the other hand, when accessed show the latest version, there is no need to download and install a newer version, it always shows you the latest version, pure bliss!



The support and maintenance required for mobile apps are more frequent compared to web apps, due to the complexity of the technology as well as the needing to deploy the apps to the app store.

Are mobile apps more costly to develop than web apps?

The short answer is: yes!

Most people (unless you’re a techie – in which case we salute you!) don’t know what goes into building a mobile app or a web app.

Both need user interfaces to be designed and both need the functionality and logic developed to make them work.

However mobile apps are generally more complex to develop, due to the development environment, restrictions and complexity. This means that higher-skilled developers are needed to pull off the development of the apps.

With mobile apps, another factor that can become costly and is absolutely needed for the project is testing. Testing allows the developers and testers to verify that their code that they produce is working according to expectation. Testing is time-consuming but needed throughout the project. Web apps also need testing but not nearly as much!

Often web apps can communicate directly with the database whereas mobile apps need to communicate through an API which then communicates with the database.

What this means is that the API needs to be developed specifically for the mobile app, which further adds to the costs.

Other factors such as push notifications and integration with super cool platforms like Google Firebase all lead to additional development and testing, which contributes to the costs of the project.

Finally, mobile apps need to be launched on the app stores (Apple iStore and Google Play Store), which is not needed in a web app.

In our experience, a rough estimate would be that mobile apps cost between 40 – 80% more than that of a web app, purely due to the reasons above.

What’s our approach to mobile apps?

While we love developing and launching mobile apps, our approach is often to understand the business and what the client REALLY trying to achieve.

We find that often a mobile app is not the correct path and we gladly advise our clients so.

Once we establish what the goal is, we typically start with a web app version for a variety of reasons:

  1. Web apps are quicker to build vs a mobile app and allow the client to get to market quicker. Super important, when launching something innovative!
  2. Web apps generally cost less to develop than mobile apps. There is no guarantee of success of your concept and especially if you are a start-up, you want to watch your spend when starting out, so web apps would be the best way to launch cost-effectively.
  3. You can always test the concept first and then once you’ve got good traction release an app down the line.

There are reasons that you may want to start with a mobile app from the get-go, which include:

  1. Your requirements are entirely specific and can only be met by building a mobile app, just like your mobile app needs to tap into the mobile phone’s device capabilities, EG: games.
  2. You want to charge for people to download and install the mobile app (can’t be done with web apps).
  3. You are building a web app in parallel.

What’s the right decision for your business?

This is a hard question to answer, we would need to go back to the objectives and what is it that you are trying to achieve? If it’s something that absolutely needs to make use of the mobile phone’s capabilities, then you can only achieve this with a mobile app.

Alternatively, each project needs to be approached on a case by case basis, however, the various factors stated in this article should provide guidance as to whether you need a mobile app or a web app.

This decision is not one to take lightly. If you’re considering either, reach out to us, we’d love to help understand your project requirements and advise you on the right path to take!

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Having been established in 2005, in Cape Town, South Africa, Elemental is primarily focused on providing web development services and digital marketing campaigns.