There is a common misconception that native mobile apps and web apps are the same thing — 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.
Mobile apps vs. web apps
Native 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.
Let’s consider the Yelp native app vs. the Yelp.com web app. If you install the Yelp app on your mobile and then access Yelp.com via the browser on your phone, you’ll notice that the web app has been made to look and feel like the native mobile app: it turns your browser bar red, and when you scroll down, locks the search bar in place.
While the designs are similar and follow the same fonts and colour 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.
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.
Native mobile apps are built using specific languages and Integrated Development Environments (IDE) depending on the intended platform. Apple devices run on the iOS native operating system, so Apple apps are built using either Objective-C or Swift, and the Xcode IDE. Native apps for Android are written in Java and are commonly built using the Android Studio or Eclipse IDE.
Apple and Google also provide their own development tools, interface elements and software development kits (SDK) which developers can use to build native mobile apps.
How are web apps built?
Progressive web apps: the best of both?
In light of recent web development trends, it’s also worth being aware of progressive web apps. While standard web apps lack some of the functionality that mobile apps can offer, progressive web apps fall somewhere in between.
Unlike standard web apps (and more like native mobile apps), progressive web apps are able to work offline, and load extremely quickly. This is primarily down to advancements in the sophistication of the modern browser: thanks to the Application Cache feature, websites can now store large volumes of data offline. Progressive web apps can therefore be used without an internet connection, giving them some typical native mobile app functionalities such as push notifications, native video and audio capture, and native video playback.
Just like standard web apps, progressive web apps don’t require download or installation. In many ways, they seem to offer the best of both worlds. As Alex Russell, who invented the term, describes them: PWAs are “responsive, connectivity-independent, app-like, fresh, safe, discoverable, re-engageable, installable, linkable web experiences.”
Mobile apps vs. web apps: The pros and cons
Now we know the fundamental differences between mobile and web apps, we can recap the pros and cons of each:
Native mobile apps
- 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
- Do not need to be downloaded or installed — web apps function in-browser
- Easy to maintain — they have a common codebase regardless of 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
So now you know the difference between native mobile apps and web apps. If you’re interested in building your own app, read our guide to mobile app development tools or check out our UI for UX designers course.