There is a common misconception that mobile apps and web apps are the same things — but actually, the two are very different.
Not only are there differences for the user; they are also developed and deployed differently, so it’s important not to get the two confused.
First, though, it can be useful to distinguish between web apps and websites. Simply put, a web app is a website that is designed fluidly, responding to being viewed on a smartphone. There are many different types of websites out there, some are static and rarely updated, while others are responsive and have a great deal of interactivity. Web apps, specifically, function like downloadable apps, but all from the comfort of your phone’s browser.
But what is the difference between a mobile app and a web app? Let’s take a look.
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Mobile apps are built for a specific platform, such as iOS for the Apple iPhone or Android for a Samsung device. They are downloaded and installed via an app store and have access to system resources, such as GPS and the camera function. Mobile apps live and run on the device itself. Snapchat, Instagram, Google Maps and Facebook Messenger are some examples of popular mobile apps.
Web apps, on the other hand, are accessed via the internet browser and will adapt to whichever device you’re viewing them on. They are not native to a particular system and don’t need to be downloaded or installed. Due to their responsive nature, they do indeed look and function a lot like mobile apps — and this is where the confusion arises.
While the designs are similar and follow the same fonts and color scheme, these are essentially two different products.
Web apps need an active internet connection in order to run, whereas mobile apps may work offline. Mobile apps have the advantage of being faster and more efficient, but they do require the user to regularly download updates. Web apps will update themselves.
Above all, mobile apps and web apps are designed and built very differently. To further differentiate between the two, it helps to understand how each is developed.
Read more: How to Do Usability Testing for Mobile Apps
How are mobile apps built?
Mobile apps are more expensive to develop than web apps, and because they are platform-specific, launching an app across different platforms pretty much means starting from scratch in terms of design and development. However, they are much faster and tend to be more advanced in terms of features and functionality.
How native mobile apps are built
Native mobile apps are built-in platform-specific languages. Native app developers use Swift or Objective-C for iOS apps, Java or C++ for Android apps and C# for Windows Phone apps. Yes, that means if you want your native app to be available for download on Android and iOS devices, you’ll need to build multiple versions that, most likely, won’t have identical user interfaces.
How hybrid mobile apps are built
You guessed it—hybrid apps combine the best of both web and native apps. Technically a kind of mobile app, a hybrid app is installed like a native app, but when you run it, it functions as a web app using a platform’s WebView. (WebView is kind of a mini web browser that can be configured to run fullscreen.)
- Faster than web apps
- Greater functionality as they have access to system resources
- Can work offline
- Safe and secure — native apps must first be approved by the app store
- Easier to build due to the availability of developer tools, interface elements, and SDKs
- More expensive to build than web apps
- Compatibility with different platforms (i.e. iOS and Android) usually means designing and building the app from scratch
- Expensive to maintain and update
- It may prove difficult to get a native app approved by the app store
How are web apps built?
An emerging trend, progressive web apps (PWAs) take advantage of some recent browser advancements to allow web apps to act more like mobile apps. However, operating system support and functionality is still limited when compared to true mobile apps.
- Do not need to be downloaded or installed — web apps function in-browser
- Easy to maintain — they have a common codebase regardless of a mobile platform
- Will update themselves
- Quicker and easier to build than mobile apps
- Do not require app store approval, so can be launched quickly
- Do not work offline
- Slower than mobile apps, and less advanced in terms of features
- May not be as discoverable as mobile apps as they are not listed in a specific database, such as the app store
- Quality and security is not always guaranteed — web apps don’t need to be approved by the app store
Which type of app should I use?
The short answer is it depends. Can you get by with a “fits all” app, or should you look for something that fits your specifications a little better? It’s based on the occasion. Think about what features are most important to you, your company goals, and/or the app’s main function.
When to build a web app
If your app is simply an interactive resource for additional information or only needs internet access to provide a satisfactory user experience (UX), a web app might be the way to go. Progressive web apps are a good fix for companies trying to build better mobile usability than what is currently offered via their mobile site.
When to build a native mobile app
If your app will need access to the device’s camera or GPS, you should highly consider making a native mobile app. While a hybrid mobile app does allow you to utilize some of these features, it probably won’t be the best experience for your user. Pokémon Go is a native app, utilizing both the camera and GPS functions of the smart device, combined with augmented reality software.
When to build a hybrid mobile app
While hybrid mobile apps aren’t as common as web or native apps, the list of companies using them might surprise you. In certain circumstances, web apps are converted to hybrid mobile apps in order to take have some native-like advantages, including an app marketplace listing. Twitter is a hybrid app that really has the look and feel of a native app.
There are many factors to consider when deciding which type of app is best for your business. Whether you choose to build a web app, native app or hybrid app, it’s important to keep your users top of mind to provide the most value and best experience possible. If you are interested in the professional development of mobile applications, you can always contact Sagara Technology.