Let’s clear up the confusion here. There are actually three main types of apps: web apps, native apps, and hybrid apps. The latter two are both considered mobile apps. Let’s dive deeper into the defining characteristics of each, cover the pros and cons of web and mobile apps, and include some examples.
Think of web apps as the “one size fits all” version of apps. It usually fits okay, but rarely as well as it could. Web apps are also referred to as web-fronted apps or web-based apps. However, it’s important to clarify that a web application is not the same as a mobile website.
What is a web app?
A web app is an internet-enabled application that runs through a web browser, designed and developed for many devices, independent of the operating system.
Web app pros
Easy maintenance: with a single codebase, developers only need to make one set of updates.
Quick launch: there is no formal approval process or centralized marketplace for web apps.
Diverse device compatibility: accommodates a range of devices, including older models
Inexpensive: generally, the cost is lower for web apps vs mobile apps, depending on the number of browsers it is built to support.
Simply shared: web apps are accessed via URLs.
Web app cons
Connectivity: a web browser and a strong internet connection are necessary to use a web app.
Less advanced: available features might be limited to coding constraints.
Bigger barrier to entry: users have to discover it themselves, then bookmark or manually create home page shortcuts to your web app and check back for updates.
Integrations: can’t access external features, such as the built-in camera or microphone.
Non-native tools were intentionally created to avoid writing code twice, as well as to give more developers the ability to make apps. Web apps are created with common programming languages such as HTML and CSS because they run in a browser similar to the way a website does.
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.
The majority of apps on your phone are mobile apps. You can install them to your device from a marketplace, such as the App Store or Google Play Store. There are two kinds of mobile apps: native and hybrid. The terms “mobile app” and “native app” are often used interchangeably, and that’s because usually the mobile app being referred to is a native mobile app.
What is a mobile app?
A mobile app is an application that is designed for and installed directly to a mobile device, built for one particular operating system.
Native promotional options: market your app within the app store.
Push notifications: send reminders to users via badges and banners.
Integrated device functionality: allows access to system features including hardware and other software.
Quick access: add shortcuts to your native app.
Mobile app cons
More expensive: typically have higher development cost than web apps.
Approval process: mobile apps are all verified in their respective app stores, which can prove tricky at times.
Installation: users must download the app manually in order to use it, taking up storage space.
Updates: periodic system releases mean a lot of continual maintenance work for app developers.
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.
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.)
Related: If a career in software engineering is on your radar, learn from the experts what it takes to become a professional app developer.
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. Here’s what Lancȏme’s web app looks like in the Google Chrome mobile browser.
Other web app examples
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.
Other native app examples:
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. Uber is a hybrid app that really has the look and feel of a native app, but for the most part it runs on m.uber.com using a WebView.
Other hybrid app examples:
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.
Bridget Poetker is a former content team lead at G2. Born and raised in Chicagoland, she graduated from U of I. In her free time, you'll find Bridget in the bleachers at Wrigley Field or posted up at the nearest rooftop patio. (she/her/hers)