What Is a Web App? A Beginner’s Guide

Have you ever browsed Yelp on your phone’s browser and seen a pop-up asking you to download the mobile app and wondered what the difference is?


You might be wondering because you thought you were using a cell phone. (By the way, you weren’t. You used their web app.) Or maybe you want to know if the mobile app is worth downloading from the app store.

Understanding the difference between a web app and a native mobile app will not only help you make better choices as a user, but help you make better choices as a developer (or as a stakeholder deciding what app your company should build).

What is a web application?


A web application is a type of application that is accessed through a web browser. When web apps are opened in a mobile browser, they look and behave like mobile apps, but they are not the same.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of a web app and then define what a mobile app is.

Advantages of the web application

  • Platform agnostic: Web applications are not designed for a specific platform. They can be built for any platform as long as they work in a web browser.
  • Low startup costs: Because web applications are not platform specific, they do not require a lot of time or developers to build. This means that web applications are more affordable than other types of applications.
  • Easy to maintain: Because web applications are platform agnostic, there is no need to write them in a specific coding language. Instead, they use coding languages ​​that are common across multiple platforms – usually a combination of server-side scripting (such as PHP) and client-side scripting (such as HTML and Javascript). Thanks to this, they are relatively easy not only to build, but also to maintain.
  • No app store: Because web apps don’t follow standard operating system protocols, they don’t need app store approval. This means they can be published in the format and time of the developers’ choosing.
  • Automatic Updates: Since web applications are not downloaded from the app store, users do not need to go to the app store to manage updates. Users always see the latest version when they open the web application.

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Disadvantages of the web application

  • Do you need Internet: Because Web applications are accessed through a web browser, users must be connected to the Internet to use them. This means that they cannot work offline, which can be frustrating for users if they have problems connecting to the Internet. •
  • Poor discoverability: Because web apps are not listed in the app store, they are not marketed or promoted in that marketplace. This can make it difficult for web applications to become visible and usable.
  • Fewer features: Web apps have much less utilization of devices and hardware. Because web applications are not designed for a specific operating system, they do not have access to the features of that system. This means less functionality than other types of apps.
  • Poor user experience: Just as web applications don’t have to follow the operating system’s protocols, they don’t have to follow its user interface standards. This makes it difficult to provide users with a smooth user experience.

What is a mobile application?

Mobile is the most common type of app. Mobile, also known as native software, is built on specific platforms that determine the languages ​​in which they are written. For example, iOS apps are written in Swift and Objective-C, and native Android apps are written in Java or Kotlin.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of mobile and then compare web and mobile apps.

Advantages of mobile application

  • Powerful: Mobile apps are the most powerful. Mobile apps stand out in terms of quality, security and device compatibility because they must adhere to standard operating system protocols that are accepted by their operating system.
  • Superior user experience: Because mobile apps are designed for a specific operating system, they have access to all system functions. This means they can provide more features to meet users’ needs. Also, users are likely to have a smoother experience with mobile apps because they must adhere to the user interface standards of the operating system.
  • App Marketplace Support: App stores support and distribute mobile apps. This can help them get found and increase their downloads.

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Disadvantages of the mobile application

  • High Upfront Cost: Since mobile apps are platform specific and must follow operating system protocols and guidelines, building mobile apps requires a lot of time and skilled developers. This means that mobile apps are more expensive than other types of apps.
  • Require App Marketplace Approval: Because mobile apps follow standard operating system protocols, they require app marketplace approval. This means that developers cannot decide on the form or time of the release of the program.
  • Manual updates: Since mobile apps are downloaded from the app store, users have to go to the app store to manage their updates. If they don’t update the mobile app when it’s available, they’ll see an outdated version when they open the app.
  • Difficult to maintain: Because mobile apps are platform-specific and must meet language, protocol, and user interface requirements, maintaining and updating them can be difficult.

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Native App vs Web App

A native application is built on a specific platform, downloaded from the app store, and takes up storage space on the user’s mobile phone. A web application, on the other hand, is not native to a specific platform.

Some sites have their own mobile app and website. Let’s compare the two types of Goodreads apps below, starting with the original app, so we can better understand the differences.

The Goodreads native mobile app vs web app has more functionality

Using Goodreads’ own mobile app, titles will appear on your Want to Read shelf, as shown in the screenshot above. Note that there are sorting and filtering options and preview buttons for individual titles to view these titles.

The navigation bar also appears at the bottom of the screen so you can go to the home page or search for a page or search for a title to browse. Now let’s look at the web application.

The Goodreads Web app looks and behaves like its native mobile app but has key differences


The website’s color scheme, layout and appearance are similar to the mobile app, but there are some notable differences in design and functionality.


First, there are no filter or sorting options for viewing titles, or buttons to preview individual titles. Second, a navigation bar appears at the top of the screen with different options than in the mobile app. There is also an ad and banner below the navigation bar inviting users to open the Goodreads mobile app. All this takes up so much space that only two book titles can fit on the screen, but almost four titles on the mobile screen.


While both apps serve the same purpose of allowing users to view book titles on their Want to Read shelf, the native mobile app offers a better user experience than the web app.

However, Goodreads is smart to offer both so that users who haven’t downloaded the mobile app can still view the site on their phones.


What if you don’t have the time or money to build both types of apps? In that case, you might be interested in a progressive website. Let’s take a look at these types of applications below.

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Progressive Web Application (PWA)

Because web apps lack essential features of native apps, such as working offline or sending push notifications, progressive web apps (PWAs) were created to combine the best of both worlds. A combination of web pages and native apps, PWAs offer advanced features that web apps lack, such as sending push notifications, working offline, and supporting touch gestures and commands. However, PWAs are similar to web apps in that they do not require any download or installation.


Disadvantage of PWA? They are only compatible with Google Chrome. This means you exclude iOS users. While this works for some businesses, it doesn’t work for all. Before starting development, make sure that creating a PWA is in line with your business strategy.

Creating a web application

Interested in creating your own web application? If so, the general process looks like this:

  • Choose your idea.
  • Do market research to make sure it fills a niche.
  • Define the functionality of your application.
  • Map user journeys.
  • Create a wireframe.

At this point, your web application is ready for the development phase. Unlike native mobile apps, there is no software development kit (SDK) for web app developers. However, there is a standard for web applications. Most are built using a combination of server-side scripting (like PHP) and client-side scripting (like HTML and Javascript).


Because most developers are familiar with these coding languages ​​and the features of web apps are limited, web apps are relatively easy and quick to build, especially compared to native apps.

Examples of web applications

Web applications come in different forms. These can be web forms, shopping carts, word processors, spreadsheets, emails and more.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular websites today.


Gmail

Gmail is one of the best examples of a web application. It does much more than just display emails. It allows users to reply to emails, write new ones, archive old ones and chat with other users. They can also search their inbox, report spam, starred mail and more.

Gmail web app example


The main difference between the Gmail website and the mobile app for Android and iOS devices is that you won’t receive new emails or push notifications.


Twitter

When Twitter launched a progressive website in 2017, it became one of the most prominent examples of this new technology. For users who don’t have a lot of storage on their phone, the Twitter PWA is a great lightweight alternative to their mobile app.

Twitter web app example

The PWA allows you to write, like, retweet and reply to tweets.
As of May 2020, you can also use the web app to schedule tweets or save them as drafts.

However, the site lacks some of the features offered by the original program. It does not currently support the Fleets function for example.


Uber

In 2017, Uber rebuilt its website from the ground up to allow users to request a ride regardless of their location, device or network speed.

M.uber web app example

Compatible with all modern browsers and less than 50KB, m.uber can load quickly on all devices and even on 2G networks.

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