What Is A Web App? An Entrepreneur’s Guide

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If you’re an entrepreneur or business owner looking to produce software, you’re more than likely going to hear it referred to as an app – short for application. When you hear ‘app’, what do you think of?

If you’re like most of us, then your first thought may be a program that runs on your mobile device – (iPhone or Android). But the places apps run is increasingly diverse, with many home devices from Smart TVs to Doorbells allow you to run apps on them. 

If you need an app that runs on many devices and platforms, then it will usually mean building software to run on each environment – which can be costly. Almost prohibitively so for new startups.

But what If there was a way you could have a single app run on almost any device. 

Enter the web app.

What is a web app?

A web app is software that runs in a web browser which provides a comparable experience and feature set to a native software application. They provide the user with the functionality to access and manipulate data; for this reason, they usually require authentication. Web apps are sometimes known as cloud software or cloud-based apps; this is because the software runs on servers rather than on devices, like traditional desktop applications.

What’s the difference between a web app and a website?

While both a website and a web application are software that run in a browser; web applications provide more functionality than a website as they allow the user to manipulate the underlying data rather than only read it – for this reason web apps usually require authentication before users can interact with them.

What are some well-known web apps?

Gmail, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, YouTube and Twitter – all started out as web apps. Although today many people access these digital products from native apps on their devices, their web apps are still popular. This is especially true of software aimed at business customers where they are more likely to be working on a desktop or laptop through a web browser. Think online email services, file sharing, project management, and accountancy software.

Where did web apps come from?

Having been a developer too long, I can go on about the history of the development of web technology for hours. But that would be boring. So here are the interesting bits…

In 1989 a clever geezer called Tim Burners-Lee gave us the web. Fast forward to 2007, a man who liked to wear black turtlenecks, pulled something small and hard out of his pocket while on stage – it was the iPhone!

When Steve Jobs pulled the iPhone out of his trousers it changed everything. The iPhone revolutionised the mobile device landscape. It dropped the keypad used by previous ‘dumb phones’ in favour of a far larger screen with touch control. It also brought with it the fully capable Safari web browser. One thing the first iPhone did not have was the App Store.

Why no app store? Well Steve believed in web apps. Stating that developers could “write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone”. Unfortunately, they were ahead of their time. And a few months later they had to backtrack and introduce the App Store because of “jailbreakers and developer backlash”.

Fast forward again to 2015, Google Chrome developer Alex Russel and designer Frances Berriman first coined the term Progressive Web App. The idea of a PWA is a rehash of Apple’s original idea. Only this time backed with modern web technology and the full might of Google.

Since 2015, big industry players like Google and Microsoft continue to push the concept of Progressive Web Apps as a solution to bridge the gap between web and native applications.

There are many pros of developing your next software project as a web app…

What are the advantages of web apps over native software?

Web applications have some distinct advantages over native apps that include accessibility for a wider audience and cost efficiency benefits for the business. Here they are in detail:

Access from anywhere

With web apps you can access them from anywhere you have an internet connection. And with PWAs (Progressive Web Applications) you can even access the app while offline. Being able to access software from any device is a huge convenience for users who work across different devices.

Nothing to download

Since web apps are based on web technology, you can access the software from any web browser. And with progressive web apps you can even install the app to your home screen for fast easy access.

Your data is saved to the cloud

You’re probably already familiar with the benefits of having your emails and files saved to the cloud, and how reassuring it is to have everything backed up. 

This is another benefit of web apps, where your data is saved to the cloud so even if your device is stolen or goes for a swim in the porcelain bowl, your data is secured and waiting for you when you’re back up and running.

Note: saving data to the cloud is also possible with native applications, but requires more work.

Lower development costs

The cost of developing a web application can be lower than developing for native devices. This is for three reasons:

  1. only a single code base to work with.
  2. it’s easier to find and recruit software developers with the right skills.
  3. releasing features and updates is faster than for native applications.
Single code base

Because web apps are built to run in browsers there is only need for one code base, rather than one for each platform and device you want to support. This means fewer developers are needed to build and maintain the app.

Easier to find and recruit software developers who can build them

According to a 2020 survey by Stack Overflow, 55% of the 65,000 respondents identified as full stack developers. Compared to 20% who identified as mobile developers. In other words, there are more developers with the skills to build web applications compared to native mobile apps.

Releasing features and updates is faster than native applications

The development cycle is way faster for web applications. Fixes and updates can be released several times a day. 

Whereas when deploying fixes and updates for iOS apps, the changes must be approved by a human at Apple before it can be deployed to users. Meaning that the development cycle for releasing updates on iOS is usually at least two weeks.

What are the disadvantages of web apps over native software?

Although web apps are great, they have a few drawbacks over native applications which we would be remiss if we did not include them here. These drawbacks include:

(Almost) No visibility on app stores

In general, the apps stores are for native applications not web apps. Although some people would argue that established app stores are saturated, they can help people discover your app and give it an air of credibility.

While the Apple App Store for iOS has no support for web apps, the Google Play store has opened up its doors to ‘trusted’ web activities. TWAs are sort of a halfway house between web apps and fully native experiences. 

If being listed on app stores is critical to your project, then having it built using a framework such as React Native may be a better alternative. React Native uses web technology but then compiles into a native app that can be uploaded to the app stores. This approach has its own set of pros and cons.

Limited access to the devices underlying features

Although web browser developers have worked to close the gap between the access to features of native and web-based applications there it’s still not seamless. Web applications are able to access the device’s geolocation, camera and microphone as well as vibration – which is good news for people who like good vibrations!

Unfortunately, many other device features are not accessible. The most significant omission being no support for Push notifications for web apps on iOS; and there isn’t likely to be support from them any time soon as Apple takes a dim view of notifications in general. Although SMS and email notifications can be viable alternatives. This is still a big drawback since Push notifications are massively valuable due to their significantly higher engagement than other forms of notifications. According to data from e-goi, push notifications have a 90% open rate and 7 times the click through rate of email.

Bad fit for performance critical apps

Due to technical reasons, the web browser is always going to be a little bit slower than running natively on a device. For this reason, web apps are not a good fit where performance is critical, like in a real time stock tracking app or multiplayer game.

Could a web app be a good fit for your software project?

As we have seen in this article, web apps have a long list of advantages for both users and businesses who create them. But they also have their drawbacks, which can make them unsuitable for some use cases. So be sure to way up your needs before deciding on which technology to use.

If you are looking to develop your own web application, maybe we can help. We help startups and digital agencies both big and small build digital products every day. So if you would like to see what we can do for you; feel free to contact us.

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Written By

Aron Marriott-Smith

Software developer and tea drinker. Helping startups and creative agencies build digital products.

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