Do you have a website, but you’ve thought about getting an app made for your organisation? Or perhaps you want an app to be built, but you’re concerned about the cost of making multiple apps (Android, iOS, etc.), and you also want your customers to find it on Google like a website? If you’ve ever thought something like that, then you need to know the difference between websites, apps, and web apps.
Firstly, what they look like
You’re probably super familiar with regular websites, which businesses, organisations, and even individuals use to promote themselves and to communicate with people who care about them. A website is a bunch of connected web pages at a particular address, like the Al Jazeerah international news website at aljazeera.com.
You’re probably also very familiar with apps on your phone, and perhaps even apps on your Windows or Mac computer. We sometimes call these “native apps”, since each one is built for that specific operating system (eg. for Android). Apps are usually fast, they have loads of features, and you install new apps using an app store on your phone or computer. Think of the Google Maps app.
Web apps are like a combination of those two above; you find them using Google or by typing in their address in your web browser just like a website, but they work well on your phone - sometimes even when you don’t have signal / reception - and have lots of features, just like apps. An example is Twitter, which at first looks like an ordinary website. But when you visit it on your phone, you can “install it” like an app (we’ll get to this later), and you can use it even when you’re offline.
How do web apps differ from the others?
Since you’re very familiar with the first two, let’s compare web apps to them.
The biggest difference between websites and web apps is what they’re designed to do. While websites are usually meant to communicate with their visitors, web apps are meant to be a tool that their visitors (or users) can use to do some activity. For instance, a web app can be used as a learning tool, or to chat with others, or to measure and calculate something technical.
Websites usually have a goal for visitors - an action that the website wants them to take - like filling in a contact form. For web apps on the other hand, just getting people to use it - and perhaps to pay monthly to keep using it - is their goal.
Now unlike websites, web apps sometimes have lots of features that “native” apps have, such as allowing you to take pictures with your phone’s camera. They can access your phone’s location (using the built-in GPS), use bluetooth, and even send you pop-up notifications when you’re not even using them. Before they can use these phone features, they do need you to give them access (allow them to use these), just like other apps ask you after you install them.
You can also “install” a web app on your phone, which just means that there will be an icon on your phone’s home screen with the web app’s logo and name that you can click on to open it. And when you do, it’ll open quickly, and it won’t look like you’re visiting a website, because it won’t look like you’re using Chrome (or your preferred browser) to visit a website; it’ll be just like your other apps. To try this out, on your phone visit twitter.com, then press the menu button, and choose “Install app” (if you’re using Chrome), or “Add to home screen” (if you’re using a different browser).
Lastly, web apps can work offline like regular apps. Imagine you’re using a timer app to track how long you spend working on something. When you’re finished the work and press “stop”, you realise your phone (or computer) isn’t connected to the internet, so you connect. Then a second later, the timer web app shows a little “syncing” icon and message, and a few seconds later that goes away. What happened was that the web app “saved” what you were doing while you were offline, and then sent that information off to be saved into your account safely for the long term when it was back online.
A web app that has these features we’ve discussed is technically called progressive web app (or PWA).
What are the disadvantages of a web app?
From our exploration of their features above, it might sound like web apps have the best of both websites and apps, so why would anyone make regular apps. In reality, they have a few downsides.
Firstly, if you have a web app, people would “get” it by visiting its address - they could use Google to find it - rather than finding it in their app store, which can be inconvenient. Secondly, while web apps can use those phone features like location (GPS), there are a lot of less obvious device features that they can’t use. Lastly, they simply don’t work as smoothly and quickly as other apps, because of how they are coded, so the “user experience” isn’t quite as good as native apps.
Which one should you get?
By now, it should be pretty clear if you need a regular website for your organisation, or one of the types of apps. If you want your customers to “visit” and “browse” it rather than “use” it, you probably should get a traditional website.
If you do want to create an app for your audience to use, then you need to decide between building one web app, or multiple native apps. The short answer is that if you can afford to make multiple native apps - one Android, one for iPhones, maybe one for iPads, one for Windows computers and one for Macs - then definitely go ahead! The quality of the “user experience” will be much higher with native apps.
But if your business is new, and you’re still in the experimental phase, a web app might give you the features you need while working on every device that your customers or users have. It’ll be faster and cheaper to build, and will work on every device; you’ll just have to teach your users how to get it.