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Web vs. Mobile App Development: How to Choose Between Them

Siddhant Varma
Siddhant Varma
Web vs. Mobile App Development: How to Choose Between Them
September 6, 2022
7
min read
web vs mobile app development


Web development has been around for a long time. It has grown immensely in terms of technology, scalability, and user experience. At the same time, mobile app development has taken the world by storm due to the ease of access and usability. So, which domain should you pick as a budding software engineer?
To make the right choice, you need to know how both differ in various aspects. In this post, I'll break down the differences between web and mobile app development in terms of various factors. I'll then sum up these differences and help you decide how to choose between them.
Let's begin with a refresher on both web and mobile development.

Web Development

Web development caters to designing, building, deploying, and maintaining a website or a web application. It may be restricted to only client-side front-end development, but it can also include working with servers, databases, and back-end web services.

Mobile App Development

Mobile app development refers to the process of creating, building, and publishing native mobile apps. Thus, everything you explicitly see and interact with on a mobile app is the responsibility of the mobile app developer.
Mobile app development is strictly limited to client-side development. This means that it doesn't include any back-end or server-side development.

Development Process

Now, let's take a look at the process of building a mobile app and a web app.
Both web and mobile development need a platform to operate, like a browser or an operating system. Also, they both require knowledge of basic programming. Both domains heavily revolve around UI/UX to create visual interactions in general.

Building a Web App

To build a web app, you make use of three basic languages—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Then, you need some libraries and frameworks on top of it, like React, Svelte, or Angular. It also helps to use a styling library like Bootstrap or TailwindCSS to create design elements for your website easily.
Additionally, you may need a back-end or server-side technology like NodeJS to write programs that interact with databases. When your app is final, you purchase a domain name and deploy the website via a hosting solution like Netlify, DigitalOcean, AWS, etc.

To build a web app, you make use of three basic languages—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Building a Mobile App

To build a mobile app, you first need to pick a programming language. For instance, you can go with Java for Android and Swift for iOS. You can also go with the Java-based framework called Kotlin.
Additionally, you can choose cross-platform frameworks like React Native based on JavaScript or Flutter based on Dart.
Then, you either need an emulator with AndroidStudio or a real device to see and test how your app looks. Once you're done, you submit your app to the relevant app stores for review. When your app passes the review, it's published on the app store. A similar procedure is followed when you release updates to your app.

Web vs. Mobile App Development: What's the Difference?

Now that we understand what each domain is and how it works, let's look at their differences on various factors.

Popularity

Mobile app development is definitely a more popular choice than web development. It appears a more promising field that's not saturated yet, unlike web development. It also appears exciting to developers due to the evolving ecosystem around it and the complexity of products being engineered for all kinds of markets.
Clearly, when it comes to popularity, mobile app development is a winner.

Learning Curve

The primary language that powers web development is JavaScript. It has a simple syntax and is weakly typed in nature.  Additionally, web development uses browsers as a platform, which is also quite simple to understand and work with.
There are some additional efforts required to learn HTML and CSS, but they're not programming languages and are also fairly simple to get the hang of.
For mobile app development, you'll need an understanding of Java for Android apps and Swift for iOS. Both have a higher learning curve than JavaScript. Moreover, each platform works differently, and you may need some platform-specific knowledge to build and compile your app correctly.
Therefore, web development has a much more narrow learning curve than mobile app development.

Barrier to Entry

Web development has the least barrier to entry in software engineering. This is because it's easier to train and understand. Web development projects also don't require external platform-specific knowledge of complex tooling, which comes in handy for newbies.
We already know mobile app development is comparatively difficult to grasp. For the same reasons, it's harder to train engineers in that domain as well. Considering the complexity of apps built for mobile is more than that of the web. Companies tend to prefer more experienced people for the former.
Therefore, web development has a lower barrier to entry than mobile development.

Web development has the least barrier to entry in software engineering.

Job Market and Salary

To date, there are about 1.9 billion websites on the internet. Average salary for web developers in the US is roughly $75,000. Despite having a saturated market, web developers are always in high demand because it's the most generic and simplest form of software engineering.
On the other hand, there are only 2.87 million mobile apps in the world. That's a much smaller number, but it's also because mobile app development is much newer than web development. The average salary of a mobile app developer is roughly $93,000. Despite having a statistically smaller market, it's a better paid field than web development.
Clearly, mobile development is more lucrative in terms of salary, but web development may have more demand in general.

Development Workflow

Now, let's look into the nitty gritty of each domain from a process point of view and see how they differ.

Environment

Environment setup for web development is fairly simple. If you're developing static websites, you don't need any environment setup at all. If you're working with dynamic web applications, you need to install NodeJS. It's a JavaScript runtime that can be installed and run on most devices, even with lower configuration laptops, and doesn't make your laptop considerably heavy.
On the other hand, mobile app development has a tricky and time-consuming environment setup process. For Android, you'll need to set up and install Android Studios, which is a heavy software and may cause lag if you don't have a powerful laptop. Even if you're plugging in a physical device, the process isn't as straightforward as running a web development project on a browser.

Platform and Publishing

Web development uses browsers as the platform. To deploy your web application, you create a production bundle for your web application and deploy it on a domain. Most of these steps can be easily automated, or some hosting providers can assist in this via an intuitive interface. The best part is deployments generally experience zero to minimal downtime, so your users using the app won't be affected in any way.
A lot of times mobile apps get rejected by the stores because they unknowingly violated a platform policy that developers didn't know about. These policies also change rapidly as newer versions of OS come into the picture.
Also, depending on the type of updates you're shipping for your mobile app, users may be required to update the app without using it further, which can be a point of friction, unlike with web apps.

Testing and Debugging

Browsers make it insanely easy to debug web apps because they show you everything. From the network requests your app is making to inspecting the HTML it renders, you can see everything. Due to the vast ecosystem of testing libraries out there, it's also easier to write automated tests for your web app.
Mobile apps need emulators and real device testing to make them foolproof. Sometimes emulators may exhibit different behaviors than real devices. You could also run into issues where the app behaves differently on different devices. All in all, testing and debugging can be comparatively painful for mobile apps.
However, if you use something like Waldo, you could easily write and run automated tests for your mobile app in the browser.

Dual-Purpose Tooling

We've seen that both web and mobile app development require different programming languages and frameworks. However, there are dual-purpose tooling options available where you can do both mobile and web development using the same technology.
For this, we have options like React Native and Flutter. React Native is a cross-platform mobile app development framework that functions almost exactly like ReactJS, its web counterpart. Similarly, we can use Flutter both to build cross-platform native apps as well as web apps.

Which Is Better: Web Application or Mobile Application?

We've seen how each competes against the other on various factors. To decide which suits you best, ask yourself this: which factor matters the most to you?
If you want to get your first job regardless of the domain, choose web. If you're fascinated by mobile apps and have a genuine interest in building them, go for mobile.
The most optimal choice you can make is choose web, learn React, and transition to mobile development using React Native. From thereon, it'll be much easier for you to understand native mobile development, and you'll also possess a wider knowledge of both domains.

This post was written by Siddhant Varma. Siddhant is a full stack JavaScript developer with expertise in frontend engineering. He’s worked with scaling multiple startups in India and has experience building products in the Ed-Tech and healthcare industries. Siddhant has a passion for teaching and a knack for writing. He's also taught programming to many graduates, helping them become better future developers.

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