What are Mobile Web Apps and Why Even Build One?

Most people know what a “mobile app” is and how to find them in the app store. But what exactly is a mobile web app? How is it different? And why would you want to build one?

Those are the questions I’ll set out to answer for you today.

What is a Mobile Web App?

At its most basic, a mobile web app is simply a mobile-optimized website.

A mobile web app does not need to be downloaded onto a mobile device. All you need to access it is a data connection and a browser.

A mobile web app uses features available in HTML5. But instead of looking like a normal web page requiring you to zoom in and out to see the whole thing, it’s designed for responsiveness to a wide range of mobile screen sizes. Because of this, sometimes the navigation is transformed so much it appears more like a native mobile app than a web page. But you’re still in a browser and underneath, your app is still living in the cloud.

What Can a Mobile Web App Do?

With HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS, you can do a lot of cool stuff on a web page. You can present forms, access databases, and display custom content. You can make your mobile web app look more like an app (and less like a web page) by using special navigation options, menus, and toolbars.

You can even make a mobile web app “feel” like a native app by utilizing app-like buttons, interfaces, and features such as horizontal touch scrolling.

Taking it a step further, you can access the GPS, use functionalities like touch-to-call, and even rely on a variety of extensions to enhance the browser’s capabilities.

What Are the Drawbacks of a Mobile Web App?

A mobile web app is, of course, limited to the browser – and the technologies a browser can handle. That means technologies like HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS may define what you can and cannot do.

And since a mobile web app is tied to the browser, and not into your mobile operating system, there are plenty of things a native mobile app can do that a mobile web app can’t replicate. A few examples are:

  • Accessing a smartphone’s notification system. Alerts, messaging, and push notifications are a few of the main reasons why some projects require a native mobile app instead. If you don’t need these features, however, then a mobile web app might be the better choice.
  • Running in the background. While some elements of a web page can be cached to improve speed, a mobile web app can’t run in the background like a native app can. This means that each time you access a page – or interact with a link or button – a call to the web server takes place. If your app requires many of these calls (or if your expected internet speeds are slow) this could be a considerable drawback.
  • Taking advantage of other native apps and built-in capabilities. Smartphones and their operating systems have a host of built-in features that are not browser-related and therefore not accessible to web apps. On top of these, other native apps can build on the smartphone’s capabilities, which are likewise not available in the browser. Features such as touch and gesture commands, calendaring, clocks, and weather are all examples of built-in or native apps.

As a web app, users won’t need to download it from an app store. This is a benefit on one hand, but a disadvantage on the other. You’ll miss out on the traffic generated from the various app stores, since web apps don’t appear there.

Keep in mind that these drawbacks are only for a mobile web app. If you need any or all of those features in your product, you can build them in a native mobile app instead

So Why Choose a Mobile Web App?

Similar to a desktop web app the main advantage of a mobile web app over a native app is cost.

Mobile web apps are generally cheaper to build. That’s because they rely mostly on HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS – all programming skills in relatively large supply. Of course, such a large supply makes it harder to find the best ones. That’s why Ascendle uses distributed development teams to engage the best engineers, analysts, and designers for your projects. Learn more about how we build our native and web app development teams.

Another reason to choose a mobile web app is because it’s responsive to a user’s mobile device. The user interface responds by adjusting and re-configuring itself for whatever size display the user owns. This provides a much better experience than a typical website would.

The complexity of this kind of responsiveness is what sets a mobile web app apart from a desktop web app. But as I explained in What are Desktop Web Apps, you can mix and match them to include both types of web app in the same project. In this way you can “kill two birds with one stone,” providing both the less costly desktop app for your computer users and the more responsive mobile app for smartphone and tablet devices.

This two-tiered approach also allows you to upgrade (and maintain) one set of code for both desktop and mobile apps. Plus, you won’t have to deal with pushing updates to the app stores and then relying on customers to download and install them.

If your needs are relatively simple – like making content available and interacting with forms – a mobile web app offers a lot of advantages.

To learn more about those advantages, or to help you decide if web or native mobile apps would be right for your business, contact Ascendle today.

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