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by Jordan Schwartz | March 12, 2014

If you've researched mobile apps for your events, you've probably come across the question, "Native or HTML5?" But you may not have known exactly what it meant or, more importantly, why you should care. Let's break it down.
 
What do these terms mean?
A native mobile app refers to software that was written specifically for a particular type of device, such as an iPhone, an Android or a BlackBerry. A native app can run only on the device, or platform, for which it was written. If you want an app to run on both Apple iOS and Android devices, you will need two different versions, one for each. They may look and behave the same, but each must be created separately.
 
A mobile web app (now often referred to as "HTML5") runs in your phone's web browser (such as Safari on iPhones, or Chrome on phones running Android). Instead of downloading from the app store, you simply navigate to the app's web address, just like a web page. The exact same HTML5 mobile web app will run on iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile and other modern devices (including the recent BlackBerry devices).
 
HTML5 refers to the latest standards for creating web applications, and includes a combination of HTML, javascript and other web technologies. An HTML5 web app is a bit different from a standard web page, in that you can load a complete interactive website as a single "page." As you interact with it, instead of each click causing a new page to download from the server, the software manipulates and changes the page that's already on your phone. This has several advantages over older web apps, the most important being speed.
 
So which is better? It depends on your circumstances and what's important to you.
 
Installing and Launching
A native app must be installed from an "app store." It's an extra step that isn't required of a mobile web app, but many mobile users have been trained to look for apps in the app store; we've spoken to show organizers who want a native app because they believe their attendees will more easily find the app that way.
 
An HTML5 app does not need to be "installed." You simply click a link (from email or another web page), and it loads. However, if users want to return to the page later, they will have to manually add a link to their phone's desktop, bookmark it or return to their email to find the link. Many mobile web apps prompt the user to add a link when first visiting the page.
 
Signing In
If your attendees need to sign in to your app (to retrieve sessions selected during registration or online, for example), mobile web apps are the clear winner. Attendees can use personalized links from email that automatically sign them in to their account, without the need to enter a password.
 
Native apps don't, and can't, support automatic sign-in. The first time an attendee launches a native app, they must enter a user name and password by hand to get access to their personal data. There is no way around this. However, most apps will store this information, so it only need be entered once.

Speed
Native apps tend to run a bit quicker than HTML5 apps because the programming language they're written in is more highly optimized for the specific hardware they're running on. Programmers will say it's "closer to the metal."
 
That said, modern mobile web browsers are becoming more and more efficient at running javascript (the most common language used), and a well-written mobile web app can be as fast as a common native app (and faster than a poorly written one).
 
Offline Access
It used to be that if you wanted to guarantee that your conference attendees would have access to the program even when no Internet access was available, you had to "go native." With the advent of the latest round of HTML5 standards and browsers updates, web apps have access to an "offline cache" that can let them store the entire site and its data in a local (on the device) database for use when the Internet goes away.
 
Not all HTML5 web apps take advantage of this: It's new and tricky technically. To my knowledge, only the mobile apps offered by Pathable and EventMobi support offline access. That is, of course, subject to change soon.
 
Note too that even some native apps don't support offline access! Just because the code that runs the app is installed doesn't mean the database that holds the schedule and exhibit information is stored on the phone. Be sure to ask!
 
Pro tip: If your app does support offline access, be sure to evaluate how the local database updates itself with new information. An app may have to reload the entire database each time you open it, which can take several minutes. When you're trying to find your way to a session or hosted buyer meeting, that can be the difference between being on time and being late!
 
Cost and Deploy Time
Because native apps must be built and compiled once for each platform (iPhone, Android, etc.), and must be submitted independently to each app store, there is considerably more work involved in deploying a native app for iPhones, Android, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry. In addition, when submitting to Apple's store, there may be a several-week delay while Apple reviews and approves the app (Google's store, called Google Play, does not review apps, so the process of releasing an Android app can be much quicker than an Apple one.)
 
To deploy an HTML5 web app, on the other hand, the developer simply enters the data for the app into their database and it's available on the web. When new features are added, a single change is available on all platforms without extra effort.
 
As such, it can be less expensive to deploy an HTML5 web app than a native app on multiple platforms.
 
Analysis
So, which one is better?
 
The bottom line is that a well-written HTML5 app will be better than a poorly written native app, and a well-written native app will be better than a poorly written HTML5 web app.
 
From our experience, the only strong advantage native apps hold over mobile web apps is that some people have become accustomed to installing an app from the app store. Even if they don't need to, they still will search for it there and may become frustrated if they don't find it. Honestly, that's the main reason Pathable is moving to support native as well as HTML5.
 
On the other side, mobile web app providers are able to go from start to launch literally in hours, as opposed to the weeks it takes to pull together and launch a native app. As a result, mobile web apps can fit a budget that a native app cannot.
 
Should you choose to offer both (and many do), be sure to carefully evaluate the HTML5 web app experience that your mobile app vendor is providing. Many native app producers offer an HTML5 web version that isn't nearly as robust as the native one, and that might leave your BlackBerry or other users who don't have a native option feeling like second-class citizens.
 
If you have any questions about the difference, or how to decide, please feel free to contact me at Jordan@pathable.com. To read more on this topic, check out our white paper here.
 
Jordan Schwartz is the CEO of Pathable, a digital experience platform and social networking service for conferences and events. He also leads a team of 60,000 bees in producing organic honey.