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RWD vs. native apps vs. PWAs: Which approach should you go for in 2024?

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A quiet revolution is taking place in front of our eyes. Mobile devices are becoming the default way to experience the internet, and each new report places them farther and farther in front of PCs and laptops. The older generations of internet users are gradually switching from computers to mobile devices, while young users start their internet journey with a phone in their hand and never look back.

This changes the way eCommerce businesses approach their online presence. Just a few years ago, developing mobile versions of eCommerce websites was an afterthought. The average user simply wasn’t ready to trust mobile technology with their shopping just yet. Now, it’s safe to say that we’ve arrived at this point: about 60% of all purchases happen through mobile channels. Engaging with mobile users and presenting them with seamless experiences becomes the top priority for business owners. 

How can you engage mobile users in the right way, though? In terms of technologies, there are three major ways you can approach this challenge. Each of them comes with different sets of benefits and drawbacks, and fills different market niches, so let’s take a detailed look at the options and explore which one is right for your business.

Your options to engage with mobile users

If you’re looking to engage with and improve the customer experience for mobile users, there are currently three viable ways that you can go: 

  • A progressive web app (PWA) 
  • A native app 
  • Responsive web design (RWD) 

These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and you can technically implement all three at once. However, that simply doesn’t make much sense in terms of eCommerce business strategy, and in most cases, it’s better to focus on one or two of them. Keeping that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the alternatives in the current eCommerce landscape.

Responsive website design

We start with the simplest solution of the three. A responsive website is one that’s built according to the principles of RWD. In down-to-earth terms, it means that you handle both the design and development phases of building your website in such a way that it looks and works great on both desktops and mobile devices. Typically, this comes down to building the website’s components in a way that they automatically adjust their size and proportions to the resolution of detected devices. 

Benefits of RWD

There are both benefits and drawbacks to the simplicity of this solution. On the one hand, it’s by far the cheapest option that’s available to you. RWD is the norm in modern websites, so regardless of whether you’re developing a custom website or using a drag-and-drop builder, the feature should be included by default. In comparison with the latter two options, it’s also less hassle for you and your team. Every business needs to set up and manage its website no matter what, and adding the RWD elements to the mix is just a tiny amount of extra work.

Here’s an in-depth list of benefits of a RWD implementation:

  • Cost-effectiveness: RWD is a budget-friendly option that still achieves respectable results in terms of mobile experience.
  • Time efficiency: RWD saves time in development because it eliminates the need for building and maintaining separate websites for desktop, tablet, and mobile devices.
  • Industry norm: RWD is the standard for modern websites. This ensures that it is readily available in both custom website development and drag-and-drop builder platforms.
  • Universal adoption: responsive design ensures your websites are accessible and functional across various devices.
  • Improvements in UX and the customer journey: RWD enhances the overall user experience (UX) and provides a seamless and consistent interface across different devices.
  • Future-proofing: adopting RWD prepares your website for future technological advancements and new devices, which ensures its compatibility and longevity.
  • SEO-friendlines: Google and other search engines favor responsive websites, which leads to better search rankings and visibility.
  • Simplified maintenance: managing a single responsive website is more efficient and requires less maintenance than maintaining separate versions for different devices.

Drawbacks of RWD

The other side of the coin is that a responsive website is clearly the least capable of the three options. It’s just a mobile version of the website, and that’s it. It doesn’t offer any unique features for mobile users that they wouldn’t find on the desktop version. It’s also inefficient in terms of data transfer because each refresh of your store means having to load the entire page.

Disadvantages of RWD in eCommerce include:

  • Limited capabilities: RWD is less capable than other options, particularly when it comes to using native device features, like camera, geolocation, or offline mode.
  • Uniformity: a responsive website is essentially a scaled-down version of the desktop site. It lacks customization features that could enhance the mobile user experience.
  • Challenges in user interface (UI) design: adapting a single design to fit various screen sizes may lead to a cluttered or less optimized interface, particularly on smaller screens.
  • Limited device-specific optimization: RWD may not fully leverage the capabilities of specific devices and miss out on opportunities to optimize the user experience for particular platforms.
  • Unavoidable compromises: achieving responsiveness sometimes requires compromises in design elements. This might lead to a less visually appealing website in comparison with platform-specific designs.
  • Load time issues: loading the entire website’s content on each refresh may contribute to longer load times, especially for larger websites with extensive multimedia content.
  • Performance: as a result of the point above, the inefficiencies in data transfer may result in a suboptimal user experience, especially in areas with slower internet connections.

Native apps

Building a native mobile app is at the very opposite end of the spectrum compared to RWD. It’s definitely not a simple solution because it comes down to developing a product that’s almost completely separate from a website. In terms of infrastructure, the only elements they’ll realistically share are some parts of the back end, such as a product information management (PIM) system.

Benefits of a native app

Of course, those efforts aren’t in vain, and there are huge benefits to gain by building a native app for your eCommerce business. For one, it lets you precisely craft and fine-tune an engaging experience for your mobile users. You aren’t constrained by any features “inherited” from the desktop version and are free to take full advantage of the unique features and interactions presented by mobile devices. A native app also means greater customization possibilities for users and efficiency in terms of data transfer. Once installed, the amount of data sent back and forth between the device and the server is minimal. 

Here are the benefits of native apps in detail:

  • Tailored UX: native apps allow for the precise crafting and fine-tuning of engaging experiences designed specifically for mobile users.
  • Unrestricted creativity: developers have the freedom to leverage unique features and interactions offered by mobile devices without being constrained by desktop features.
  • User engagement: native apps allow for push notifications and other engagement features that enhance user interaction and retention.
  • Customization opportunities: native apps provide greater customization possibilities for users that enhance personalization and user satisfaction.
  • Enhanced performance: native apps often deliver better performance compared to web-based solutions because they can be optimized for the specific platform rather than a catch-all approach.
  • Offline functionality: once installed, native apps can offer offline functionality and allow users to access certain features and content without an internet connection.
  • Minimal data transfer: the amount of data exchanged between the device and the server is minimal once a native app is installed, which contributes to faster and more efficient loading.
  • Access to device features: native apps can seamlessly access and utilize device features, such as cameras, GPS, and sensors, that open up the potential to enhance functionality and user engagement.
  • App store discoverability: native apps are installed through app stores that can be leveraged to help you reach a broader audience.
  • Better user retention: the immersive and optimized user experience of native apps can contribute to higher user retention rates.

Drawbacks of a native app

An obvious drawback of native apps that you need to keep in mind is that you’re not developing a native app; you’re building two separate products. One is for iOS, and one is for Android. This makes it an expensive proposition. Dealing with the app stores themselves can also be challenging. Because of how many opportunities native apps present, Apple and Google need to make sure you’re not abusing them in your app. As a result, the vetting process can be long and punishing: in 2022 alone, Apple rejected a mind-blowing 1,7 million app submissions. This applies not only to the initial release but also to every single update.

A detailed list of drawbacks includes::

  • Double development: because native apps for iOS and Android are built with different technologies, developing native apps for both platforms requires separate development efforts. This makes it a more resource-intensive and expensive process.
  • Platform-specific technologies: building on the previous point, different technological stacks for iOS and Android effectively mean that you’ll need to manage two separate development teams with varying skill sets. 
  • App store challenges: submitting and maintaining native apps on app stores, like Apple's App Store and Google Play, can be challenging due to stringent review processes and guidelines.
  • Time-consuming vetting process: the vetting process for native apps by app stores is rigorous and lengthy. As a result, you need to be prepared for potential delays during the initial release and subsequent updates of the app.
  • Limited cross-platform compatibility: different mobile operating systems typically aren’t designed to work with each other. This means that you might need additional efforts to ensure consistency and compatibility across different operating systems.
  • Dependency on app store policies: changes in app store policies and guidelines may impact the development and distribution of native apps, which adds an element of uncertainty to the design and development process.
  • Maintenance challenges: managing updates and bug fixes for separate iOS and Android versions of a native app is complex and time consuming.
  • Commitment: you can’t take a peek into a native app. Users must go through the process of installation and initial setup before they can access the content or features, which can be a major “quit moment” that hinders engagement. Because of this, native apps are best suited for cases where users are already familiar with and somewhat connected to the brand.
  • Device storage impact: native apps consume device storage, and users are often reluctant to install apps that demand significant space on their devices.


A PWA is, in many ways, the perfect middle ground between the previous two approaches. As the name implies, it’s also an app with native-like features but one that’s built primarily with a website development stack rather than native languages for iOS and Android. PWAs are installable on users’ devices, but the installation process happens directly through the browser and not the app store. You can think of a PWA as a lightweight “client” for the main website that provides intuitive access to the key features and can work offline if needed. 

Benefits of PWAs

The PWA approach comes with a long list of benefits. First, you provide users with a native app-like experience in a more efficient way. You get an icon on the screen and can take advantage of most smartphone features but without the hassle of going through the app store. This results in a much quicker time to market and complete control over releases and updates. 

PWAs are also fast and extremely small. For instance, one of the most spectacular PWA success stories, Starbucks’s, ended up only taking 233kb of space, as opposed to 148MB taken by the native iOS app. Because they’re built on common tech stacks, PWAs are quick and easy to develop. There’s also no need to split development into separate iOS and Android versions.

A detailed list of PWA’s benefits:

  • Native app-like experience: PWAs provide users with a native app-like experience that offers features, such as an icon on the home screen, and the possibility to use other features, such as the camera, geolocation, push notifications, and more.
  • Efficient distribution: PWAs are installed without the need to go through traditional app stores. This results in a quicker time to market and more control over releases and updates.
  • Reduced development complexity: built on common tech stacks, PWAs are quick and easy to develop. They also eliminate the need for separate iOS and Android versions.
  • Small file size: the initial download and installation of PWAs are extremely small in size, which leads to faster load times and reduced impact on device storage. Some PWAs take up only a few percent of the size required by their native app counterparts.
  • Offline functionality: PWAs are built to function offline and allow users to access a large part of their features and content without an active internet connection.
  • Improved performance: PWAs are designed to be fast and responsive to provide a seamless user experience across different devices and network conditions.
  • Compatibility: PWAs are compatible with various browsers, which ensures a consistent experience for users regardless of the platform or device they are using.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Developing a PWA is significantly more cost-effective than building separate native apps for different platforms because it reduces the necessary development and maintenance efforts.
  • Convenience: PWAs are accessed through a web browser, eliminating the need for large installations and making it easy to follow best practices for accessible design. 
  • User engagement: PWAs allow for push notifications and other engagement features that enhance user interaction and retention.

Drawbacks of PWAs

A PWA acts more like a website than an app when it comes to customization by users. Put plainly, not much of it is possible on their end. They can’t influence how the app looks or whether they choose to update it or not, as they can do with native apps. However, a drawback for users doesn’t necessarily translate into a drawback for you. On your end, this means that all users are running the exact same version of the app at all times, making supporting it much easier. 

Drawbacks of PWAs in detail:

  • Limited user customization: compared to native apps, PWAs provide users with limited customization options. Their ability to influence the app's appearance and update preferences is quite restricted.
  • Dependency on browser features: PWAs rely on browser capabilities, and some features may not be fully supported or consistent across all browsers. This can lead to potential variations in user experience.
  • Lack of platform-specific optimization: PWAs may not be able to fully leverage platform-specific features and capabilities, which leads to a less optimized experience on certain devices.
  • Limited push notification capabilities: although PWAs support push notifications,  they may be less interactive and feature-rich compared to native apps.
  • Perception as a website: PWAs aren’t a new phenomenon, but their understanding by the general public is still fairly limited. Because of this, users may not be fully aware of PWAs' capabilities and perceive them as websites rather than standalone applications, so they won’t use them to their full potential.

RWD, native apps, and PWAs in a nutshell

Although the information presented in the sections above is crucial to help you make the right choice for your eCommerce business, it can’t be denied that it’s a lot to process. To make your life easier, here’s a cheat sheet with all the key facts in one place that will make the three technologies easier to compare.




Native apps

Development approach

Web technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript)

Web technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript)

Platform-specific languages (Swift, Kotlin, Java)

Installation and accessibility

Installable on home screen

Accessible via browsers

Installed via app stores, accessible from home screen


Good, often comparable to native apps

Responsive but may vary based on device

Excellent, optimized for specific platforms

Offline functionality

Yes, with service workers

Limited, cached resources

Yes, with local storage and data syncing

Platform compatibility

Cross-platform (works on various devices and browsers)

Cross-platform (responsive to different screen sizes)

Platform-specific (iOS and Android)

Access to device features

Limited access to device features (camera, geolocation, etc.)

Limited, dependent on browser capabilities

Full access to device features and APIs

User engagement and retention

Good, push notifications supported

Moderate, no push notifications

Excellent, push notifications supported

Development cost and time

Generally lower compared to native apps

Moderate, consistent across platforms

Higher due to separate codebases for each platform

App store approval process

Not applicable

Not applicable

Required for distribution on app stores

Updates and maintenance

Easier to update and maintain

Easier to update because changes apply universally

Updates require app store approval

Cost of development and maintenance

Lower initial cost, cost-effective maintenance

Moderate initial cost, cost-effective maintenance

Higher initial cost, ongoing maintenance costs

Discoverability and market reach

Good, discoverable via search engines

Good, accessible via browsers

Excellent, available in app stores with vast user bases

User experience

Responsive, may not match the native feel

Responsive, may not match the native feel

Native look and feel, optimized for specific platforms

Integration with device features

Limited compared to native apps

Limited compared to native apps

Full integration with device features

Performance optimization

Service workers for caching, lazy loading, etc.

Responsive design, image optimization, etc.

Platform-specific optimizations


Secure, HTTPS is required

Secure, HTTPS is recommended

Generally secure, subject to app store guidelines


Limited options (web-based)

Limited options (web-based)

Various options, including in-app purchases

Which option is right for your eCommerce business?

As these comparisons show, building a native app gives you the biggest avenues when it comes to creating seamless mobile experiences. However, the key question here is whether you can realistically take advantage of those opportunities. In most cases, the answer will be “no.” Unless you’re building an elaborate omnichannel experience or a custom B2B solution, you don’t actually need that much firepower. For small and mid-size eCommerce businesses, a RWD or PWA solution should be more than enough.

When it comes to weighing RWD and PWAs against each other, the matter becomes much more complicated. They both come with unique sets of benefits and disadvantages, and it’s impossible to pick the all-around better solution. It’s also important to remember that you aren't really making an either/or choice. RWD tends to be included by default in modern web development, so the real choice is whether to supplement it with a PWA or not. 

With many variables to take into account, this can be a difficult decision to make, and help from industry veterans might go a long way. Make sure to get in touch if you find yourself having doubts.

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Published January 11, 2024