PWA vs Native Apps

For the modern online retailer, engaging with customers solely via an ecommerce website isn’t always enough - so Shopify store owners and other online businesses now have access to progressive web apps (PWAs) and native apps. These offer additional ways to speak to and sell to customers, using methods that help the customer achieve their goals beyond what a brand’s main site can offer. 

And for Shopify Plus store owners specifically, Shopify's headless development offers businesses the chance to take advantage of both PWAs and Native Apps.

So what exactly are PWAs and native apps, how do they work, what are the differences, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of each option? Let’s take a look and see which one might best suit your online business.

What is a Progressive Web App (PWA)?

A Progressive Web App (PWA) is a type of web application that utilises modern web technologies to provide a user experience combining the best features of websites and native apps, offering a responsive, reliable, and engaging experience for users.

Similar to a website, a PWA is mobile friendly and can be indexed for SEO purposes. But like apps, PWAs can also be installed and used offline.

An example of a progressive web app is Starbucks’ ordering system: it enables functionality that the main website doesn’t, for example placing orders, browsing the menu and more, without the need to download a mobile app. It works well because it’s quick, takes up less space than a normal app, and can work offline so customers can browse and add to cart, then complete the order when internet access becomes available again.

Benefits of Progressive Web Apps

Responsive Design

PWAs are designed to work seamlessly across various devices and screen sizes. They use responsive design principles to ensure a consistent and user-friendly experience on desktops, tablets, and mobile devices.

App-Like Interface

PWAs provide an app-like experience, featuring smooth animations, transitions, and gestures. They can be added to the home screen of a user's device, and once launched, they resemble native mobile applications.

Cost-Effective Development

Budget constraints are a common concern for ecommerce businesses. PWAs provide a cost-effective solution as they are developed using web technologies, reducing the need for platform-specific development.

Progressive Enhancement

PWAs are built with the concept of progressive enhancement, meaning they should work on any device, regardless of the level of support for modern web features. They enhance the user experience on devices that support advanced features while still providing basic functionality on older or less capable devices.

Fast Loading

PWAs prioritise performance, ensuring fast loading times and smooth interactions. This is crucial for providing a positive user experience and retaining user engagement.

Push Notifications

PWAs can send push notifications to users, even when the app is not actively open. This feature helps in re-engaging users by sending timely updates or notifications.


PWAs are served over HTTPS to ensure the security of data transmitted between the user and the server. This is especially important for applications that may handle sensitive user information.

Cross-Browser Compatibility

PWAs are designed to work across different web browsers, providing a consistent experience regardless of the browser being used.


PWAs are discoverable by search engines, making them easily accessible to users through standard web searches. Users can find and access PWAs without the need to go through an app store.

What is a Native App?

A native app is one that’s distributed on app stores, like the Apple store or Google Play store. Users download and install them and they live on the device. Native apps are designed and developed for use on a specific operating system, like iOS or Android. They access device-specific features, which helps create a better user experience.

To give some examples of native apps, a few of the most well-known ones include Instagram, Spotify and WhatsApp. 

The native app versions are independently developed from the websites, so for example if you use Instagram on your laptop browser, you’re using different software than if you use Insta via the app on your phone.

Native App Features and Benefits:

Platform-specific development

Native apps are written in programming languages that are native to the platform they are designed for. For example, Swift or Objective-C for iOS apps, and Java or Kotlin for Android apps.

Access to device features

Native apps can fully utilise the device's hardware and software features, such as the camera, GPS, accelerometer, and more, enhancing the overall user experience.


Native apps often offer better performance compared to web apps or cross-platform apps because they are optimised for the specific platform's architecture.

Distribution through app stores

Native apps are typically distributed through official app stores like the Apple App Store or Google Play. Users download and install these apps directly onto their devices.

Offline functionality

Native apps can often provide functionality even when the device is not connected to the internet, enhancing user engagement in various scenarios.

PWA vs Native Apps

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) and native apps are two different approaches to developing applications, each with their own set of advantages and considerations. Here's a breakdown of the key differences between PWAs and native apps:

PWA vs Native Apps for Platform Compatibility

Native apps are developed specifically for a particular platform or operating system, such as iOS or Android. In contrast, PWAs are designed to work across various platforms and devices, providing a more universal and consistent experience.

Development Languages: PWAs vs Native Apps

Progressive Web Apps are normally built using standard web technologies like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Native Apps will be programmed in platform-specific languages such as Java for Android.

Native vs Progressive Web App: App Store Distribution

Native Apps can only be distributed through official app stores (e.g., Apple App Store, Google Play). These are the big two, but there are also others like Amazon and Windows. To distribute your native app on each of these platforms you will have to pass certain criteria and tick the right boxes.

In contrast, PWAs can be accessed and installed directly through a web browser, eliminating the need for app store distribution. 

Installation of PWAs vs Native Web Apps

Native Apps require a download and installation process from the app store. You have to find the app in the store, confirm installation and download it before granting permissions and launching the app.

A progressive web app requires no app store or installation process. Users can add PWAs to their device home screens through a browser, making installation quicker and more straightforward.

Offline Functionality: How do PWAs and Native Web Apps Differ?

Native Apps are often designed to function partially or fully offline, with features and data stored on the device. PWAs can support offline functionality through service workers, allowing users to access certain features and content without an internet connection.

How Do You Update Progressive Web Apps Vs Native Apps?

Updates are pushed through the app store for Native apps, and users need to download and install them. In addition, any updates that are needed to the app will need to go through an approval process for stricter app stores which can take a few days. In some cases you have the ability to get approval from the official app stores within a matter of hours for urgent updates but there are a limited number of times you can do this. For progressive web apps, these are automatically updated in the background, ensuring users always have the latest version when they access the app.

PWA vs Native Web Apps: Security

PWAs are solid when it comes to security, because they run under HTTPS which is a secure environment. This means that any credit card or personal details can be entered by users without concerns over theft.

However, that’s not to say that native web apps aren’t secure. App stores have security protocols that need to be adhered to before you can distribute your apps on them, and you can implement security measures like multi-factor authentication to add extra layers of reassurance.

PWA vs Native App Discoverability

Progressive web apps can be indexed by search engines and therefore can be found through organic search, when users look for your app via Google.

Native web apps live on app stores which are not indexed, so therefore you have to make efforts to ensure your app is discoverable within the app store itself. They often behave like a Google search engine in miniature, with a lot of the same techniques being applicable, such as utilising the correct keywords, ensuring you have good titles and headings in descriptions, good screenshots with alt tags, a flow of good user reviews etc. Some of the app stores also let you pay for ads to promote your app to the top of the searches to improve the number of people that come across it.

Access to Device Features

Native apps will have direct access to device-specific features, such as camera, GPS, and sensors. Although PWAs can access some device features through web APIs, they might have limitations compared to native apps.

Development Time and Cost: PWAs vs Native Web Apps

For native apps, you will have to undergo separate development (in different languages) for each platform. This means you need at least a version for both iOS and Android, and the subsequent requirement for resources to maintain and update each version. Depending on the purpose and complexity of the app, this requires a lot of time and money.

In contrast, PWAs offer a more cost-effective and time-efficient solution, because they can be developed once, and deployed across multiple platforms. You can have one single codebase for various platforms. With responsive design, you just need one version of the app, and it will display correctly across all devices.

So PWAs win when it comes to development time and cost.

Progressive Web App or Native Web App? Which is Right for You?

Choosing between PWAs and native apps depends on factors such as target audience, required features, development resources, and the desired user experience. 

Progressive web apps (PWAs) arguably provide the best user experience across all devices. Combining the best of websites and apps, PWAs provide greater flexibility to businesses, and better experiences to users.

Some businesses opt for a hybrid approach, developing a native app for certain features and a PWA for broader accessibility.

If you're looking for more advice on which is better for you, why not take a look at our services, including Shopify Development.