Tech 101: What is a mobile application?

Since the launch of apple app stores and google app stores among others,  businesses have realized the benefits of using mobile tools and products. In many ways, it’s never been easier to build a mobile app – but there is still some complexity to it. In this blog post, we will examine the process of developing a mobile application.

What is a mobile app?

A mobile app is defined as a software application developed specifically to be used on a handheld device which includes a mobile phone or a tablet. It can be a native app or a hybrid app, created for the specific features of a mobile handset, or a mobile-optimized version of a website. Most mainstream apps are listed for purchase or free download on Apple’s App Store, Google Play (for Android devices), or the Microsoft Store among others.

App vs mobile website

There is a high demand for mobile apps by various businesses which is used to engage users, there are many businesses that choose to invest in mobile responsive websites instead of app development. A mobile responsive site is generated from the same core content as a normal website, but it provides the user with a customized user experience as it adapts to their device.

So what choice should your business choose? However, it depends on your overall purpose with the service you intend to provide. Let’s take a look at the key benefits of each.

1. The mobile app

The app (Native app) format lends itself well to things like interactive games, productivity tools, or to using hardware functionality of the device itself such as the built-in camera. It is ideal for functions that only feature offline content and do not require an internet connection.

A downloaded app can communicate with the user through push notifications, even when they are not actively using the application, which can improve user engagement going forward. In many ways, it is also easier to monetize a mobile app, if there is a genuine benefit to it that users are willing to pay for. Free apps are often sponsored by advertising, while paid-for apps can offer additional functionality at a minimal fee.

2. The mobile responsive website

With a mobile website, however, your content is instantly accessible to a wide audience across all device types. The user can search and find your website using a standard search engine and doesn’t need to download or install anything – which means they get immediate access to the information. Also, if you want to edit or upgrade the website, you can publish changes instantly without the user needing to upgrade their app locally. From the perspective of sharing, it is much easier for a user to post a link to a website than to share an app.

Three ways of creating a mobile app

As with computer software, there are different programming languages for creating apps for different platforms. Let’s look at three of the main ways of creating apps and the tools and languages used:

1. Build an app for each native platform

When we talk about native platforms, we often refer to “the big three players”: Apple (iOS), Android, and Windows. Apps for these different platforms require different programming skills, which is one of the main challenges for rolling out a mobile app across all devices.
This approach is often time-consuming – and therefore expensive – but offers a great deal of control over the end result and app quality. On the other hand, it can be a major challenge to manage multiple teams to ultimately build exactly the same thing.

Apps for iOS are built in Objective-C, which is a language based on C and which uses much of its syntax, or Swift – a newer language, easier to maintain and due to eventually replace Objective-C.

Android apps are most commonly programmed in Java, often using the Android software development kit (SDK) which is a specific set of tools for creating and testing the application.

Windows mobile apps are most commonly developed using C# and the .NET framework. With the arrival of Windows 10, all Windows devices can now in theory run the same applications, but it is important to ensure a joined-up user experience across all interfaces.

2. Use a native cross-platform tool

Instead of building the same app three times for three different platforms, these same native apps can be developed using a cross-platform tool such as Xamarin. When creating an app in Xamarin, the code is directly converted into native code for iOS, Android, and Windows. This is an excellent way of ensuring a more predictable development process in terms of time and budget.
Xamarin has quickly become the development tool of choice for millions of businesses, as it allows them to use the same teams and skill sets throughout the entire app development project – while maintaining the true native functionality of each platform.

3. Use an HTML5 to App converter

For low-budget projects that require an app output to be created quickly and with limited development, it’s possible to use a cross-platform HTML5 to App converter such as PhoneGap. This framework does not require any skills in native app development but instead generates the app through the input of web development languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Although it may be cost-effective in terms of production, a hybrid app built in PhoneGap is prone to perform slower and often lacks the fluidity and responsiveness of the native app.

Whatever the mobile project your business embarks on, do ensure that you have a clear vision of what the final outcome needs to be and what the most cost-effective solution would look like for you. As a trusted development partner, we work with our clients to weigh up costs, timescales, and functionality to help them determine the optimum route to take on their development journey.

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