Mobile Apps and Web Apps

The importance of knowing their differences

Kevin Meldau
Aug 12, 2019 · 4 min read

Most people (that are not in the tech industry) assume, incorrectly, that a native mobile app is essentially the same thing as a web app. The truth is that the two are quite different from one another.

Apart from the user experience, apps for the web and mobile are created and executed differently. A web app is a website that is designed responsively, to be viewed on a smartphone or desktop. There are a lot of different types of websites, some are static and not updated often, and others are responsive and have a fair bit of interactivity. Web apps, especially, work like downloadable apps, within your phone’s browser.

Being able to explain the difference between a mobile app and a web app is helpful on several levels. Simply put, a web app is a website that is able to function on a smartphone with a smooth and fluid design. There are over 1.5 billion websites on the world wide web today (August 2019). Of these, less than 200 million are active. Some are grossly outdated — and other websites are dynamic and provide an interactive experience.

This still leaves the question unanswered, what is the difference between a mobile and web app?

Smartphones fall into one of two categories — iOS for Apple and Android for the many other manufacturers of smartphones. Native mobile apps are downloaded from the app store and use the features of the smartphone, camera, GPS, etc., to function. Mobile apps live on the smartphone. Apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Google Maps and the like are common and popular apps.

The web app, however, is strictly Internet-based and accessed only via the web browser on the smartphone. The web app is not tied to a specific operating system and does not require downloading or installation to function. Granted, the responsiveness and experience closely mimic an app, which is where the confusion comes in.

Consider one of the biggest apps on the market — Yelp. The app downloaded onto your phone is very similar to the web app. The features are essentially the same, a red browser bar and a locked search bar. The design uses a similar color scheme and font. This is where the similarities end.

A web app cannot function without an active connection to the Internet. A mobile app is on the smartphone and does not use a connection. The mobile app runs quicker and more efficiently but needs updating with regularity. A web app is self-updating.

Mobile apps and web apps are designed and built very differently. To help us understand how differences between the two, it helps to understand how each is developed. Let’s take a look under the hood.

A mobile app requires a larger capital investment than a web app. A mobile app is designed to run on a specific operating system (iOS or Android). Creating a mobile app on a second operating system requires working from the beginning to develop what will essentially become a new mobile app. The mobile app, when complete, is much more advanced and operates faster with features and functions beyond that of the web app.

Mobile apps for each operating system are designed and built with specific languages and something called IDE, Integrated Development Environments. This means an app designed for Apple iOS uses Apple languages, Objective-C and Swift with the Xcode IDE. Android apps are written in Java with the Android Studio or Eclipse IDE.

Each operating system has its own development tools, interfaces, and SDK’s, software development kits, used by app developers for their native apps.

A web app uses much more commonly known languages — JavaScript, CSS, and HTML5. There is no set standard SDK, but developers have access to templates as part of the development process. Web apps also are much easier to build but lack many of the features of their mobile equivalents.

The progressive web app is one of the newest developments in the world of apps. These incorporate the best of mobile and web apps equally.

Much like a mobile app, progressive web apps function offline and are fast loading. The new Application Cache feature, found on most modern browsers, allow browsers to store significantly more data offline. Progressive apps do not need an internet connection, meaning progressive apps can use push notifications, video, audio capture, and video playback.

Like a web app, progressive web apps need neither downloading or installation. The progressive app has the best elements of the mobile and web app.

Now that we have some basic understanding of each, here are the pros and cons of both.

Pros — Native Mobile Apps

  • Faster than the web equivalent
  • More functions
  • Offline capabilities
  • Requires app store approval

Cons — Native Mobile Apps

  • Development is more expensive
  • Two separate apps are needed based on the operating system
  • Expensive to maintain
  • Often has difficulties getting approved by the app store

Pros — Web Apps

  • Functions in the browser so do not need to be downloaded
  • Common codebase regardless of platform
  • Easier and cheaper to build
  • No approval is necessary

Cons — Web apps

  • No offline functionality
  • Slow and less advanced
  • Not as easy to find
  • Quality and security are not always a given, don’t need to be approved by the app store

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