One of the first decisions you’ll make when setting out to build a digital product is whether you’ll create a mobile app, a web app, or a website. We interact with various types of apps every day, but we don’t often consider the formats that our favorite tools use, and it can be a challenging decision when it comes to your own product. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between mobile apps, web apps, and websites so you can make the right choice for your business.
What Is an App?
An app is a software program that runs on a platform. When we talk about apps, we may be referring to mobile apps that run on mobile devices like smartphones, tablets or computer apps, which can run web apps either locally on your hard drive or through a web browser via the internet.
Types of Apps
There are two main kinds of apps: mobile apps and web apps.
- Mobile apps are often built for a specific platform, like Android or iOS. You also have the option to build a hybrid mobile app that will work in both environments, with some limitations.
- Web apps are essentially responsive websites that adjust to the size of the device. They are usable on any device through internet browser access.
Some companies offer both a mobile app and a web app, but this will depend on your target market and budget.
A great example that allows you to see the differences between a mobile app and a web app is Yelp, as they offer both. The web app is responsive, adjusting to the device screen size, and the two apps are designed similarly. However, the mobile app doesn’t rely on an internet connection, whereas the web app does.
Differences Between Website, Web App, and Mobile App
Mobile apps are downloaded and installed through an app store or marketplace, like Google Play or the App Store. These apps live and run on the device, and they may have access to the device resources and features like the camera function or GPS.
Web apps are often confused with mobile apps because they often look and feel a lot like them. However, there are some key differences that impact the functionality and usability.
A primary difference is that web apps are accessed through an internet browser. They can store data in your browser’s cache so some of the app can be accessed even when you’re offline. So, if you don’t have internet access, you are often unable to use the web app, or you will find your functionality is limited.
There’s no need to download or install web apps, as they aren’t local to the system. Another key difference between mobile apps and web apps is that web apps have limited access to device features, like GPS and the camera, which can limit some functionality – especially more advanced features you may want to build.
Web apps are specifically designed for interaction — the user logs in to a secure account and performs actions on the web app to accomplish a task, such as sending an email, creating a document, etc. So although a web app functions like a website, it’s different in that a website is mostly static and most content is publicly visible. Because users need secure accounts with a web app, they require authentication features.
Examples of Web Apps
Web apps are an integral part of most people’s lives. Gmail, Facebook, Slack, Salesforce, and Microsoft Office all examples of software programs that have web apps users can engage with via their internet browsers. (They also all have mobile apps that can be installed on smartphones and tablets – not to confuse this point!)
Progressive Web Apps
New technology has brought a new type of app to the playing field: the progressive web app. Progressive web apps (PWA’s) are a blend of mobile app and web app, using emerging web browser APIs and features to bring the mobile app user experience to browser-based web applications.
Web App vs. Website vs. Mobile App
To evaluate whether you should build a web app or a mobile app, you should consider the needs of your target audience as well as the app functionality. The following is a list of the benefits of both web apps and mobile apps to help you decide.
Benefits of a Web Apps and Responsive Websites
Though web apps aren’t built for each device, they are usually created using the “mobile-first” principle. The user experience is defined on mobile first, then scaled up to larger devices like tablets and desktops. Here are the benefits of a web app.
- Lower-cost development — Web apps cost less than mobile apps to build. Multiple builds aren’t required, so one version of a web app can be used on all operating systems. Also, the development time required is less, and building it requires less specialized skills.
- Better discovery on search engines — You want your app to be found by the right audience. Web apps are displayed in search results on Google, so people can find them easily when searching for a solution to their problem.
- Accessibility — Web apps offer access on a wide range of devices through the browser, regardless of the operating system.
- Always up-to-date — Web apps and websites have a common code base, so updates are easy. Updates are fast as well, as a developer must push them to a server, and users see them instantly.
- Accessibility — Users can access web apps across any device through the browser, regardless of the operating system.
- Boost traffic — Your website visitors can be sent directly to your web app on mobile devices. There’s no need to download anything for a web app, so this happens automatically.
- Easy to launch — There’s no need for app stores or marketplace approvals with a web app. They have a fast speed-to-market, as you just release and go!
- Share content easily — With a web app, users simply share the URL to share your content.
Benefits of a Mobile App
Mobile apps generally cost more to build than web apps. However, they offer some great advantages for those able to invest, with some caveats noted below.
- Enhanced functionality — Provide access to a device’s built-in features, like the camera, GPS, and others. (There may be exceptions depending on the specific features of your app.)
- Better personalization — Tailor communication based on a user’s behavior, interests, and more with mobile apps that enable users to set their preferences.
- Ability to send push notifications — You can send user reminders with mobile apps, which has been shown to improve engagement.
- Promotional opportunities — Extend your reach to a wider audience by listing your mobile app in the App Store or Google Play.
- Offline availability — Many mobile apps aren’t dependent on WiFi once a user downloads it. (This will depend on the specific features of your app.)
- Better user experience — Mobile apps are customized for the operating system, so they often provide an improved user experience.
- Improved design freedom — Mobile apps can be designed with advanced gestures like drag, swipe, and tap that offer innovative functionality, help users perform tasks faster and better, and are more intuitive.
What Should You Build?
Your best course of action for choosing the right kind of app is to consider the functionality you want to offer with your app, your budget, and the type of users you’ll plan to target. Do you need access to the device’s features? Will your users likely go to the app store or to Google to solve their problem? Based on your answers, you have a great starting point from which to determine the type of app that will fit you best.
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