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What’s the difference between Web Apps, Native Apps, Progressive Web Apps and what the hell are Hybrid Apps? In this article, we will discuss what each of these is and how you can build the SaaS app or platform of your dreams.
For those not interested in the details, here they are in a nutshell…
Web Apps - used by any browser on any system and is essentially a highly interactive, fluid and responsive website optimised for smartphone use. Must be connected to the internet at all times to work.
Native Apps - One system or platform, such as Apple (iOS) or Android devices. They are downloaded directly to the handset and have access to native phone features like an accelerometer or the file system. You do not need internet access to use the app once the app has been downloaded.
Hybrid Apps (PWA) - Hybrid apps are built using web technologies in a wrapper framework like React Native. They can then be exported as native apps on any platform. They behave similar to native apps and don’t always require the internet to run.
Progressive Web Apps (PWA) - PWA’s or Progressive Web Apps combine elements from both web and native apps, allowing users to download the web app to their phone and have limited access to native phone features. As long as the app takes advantage of certain features you do not need the internet to interact with these apps.
Now we have that out the way, let’s look into these in a little more detail!
We live in an incredibly connected world; in fact, most of us spend a good chunk of our lives using the internet. In fact, I can guarantee that you’re using the internet right now!
There are seemingly millions of ways that new customers can access the web, providing you with more and more opportunities to not only grow your business and have an impact on the world.
Mobile devices consistently demonstrate more powerful features that can give us all immediate access to not only social media, entertainment and search tools but even some web development apps as well; this is great news for brand new startups or online stores looking to build their very own SaaS product!
It makes sense then, that a large focus for businesses is to design fluid, easy to use and engaging apps that are deeply rooted in their users' needs. Think back to the earlier iPhone campaigns which set the tone for the future generations: there’s an app for that. It holds true to this day; there really is an app for nearly everything!
In fact, there’s probably a few.
You’ve probably heard about ‘web apps’, ‘native apps’, ‘Progressive web apps’ and maybe even hybrid apps. A lot of people mistake these all as interchangeable terms, but this is just a somewhat common misconception - whilst they might be similar, web apps, native apps and hybrid apps all have very distinctive differences.
SaaS or Software as a Service is where these technologies shine. Building a product that can serve your customers in ways they cannot live without. Whether you’re building an app for your existing customers or you’re entering a new market with a new product and you intend on charging your customers a monthly fee so that you can build and scale and add additional features to make your SaaS app bigger and better.
Let’s take a look at what separates these from one another, and how YOU can use them to design interactive, responsive and engaging SaaS products, websites or apps to boost your natural traffic and sell more products.
Before we jump into examining the benefits of each different app or development technique, it’s helpful to understand the differences between each one.
Here’s an overview of what each app actually is:
By far the simplest way to build a SaaS app, a web app is developed to be used by any browser on any system and is essentially a highly interactive, fluid and responsive website optimised for smartphone use. A common example of a popular web app is www.facebook.com.
Web apps absolutely must be connected to the internet at all times to work, so they aren’t as accessible as mobile apps can be.
A native (or mobile) app is designed to be used specifically on one system or platform, such as Apple (iOS) or Android devices. You can, of course, build your app for each of these platforms if you have the budget.
They are downloaded directly to the handset via the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, providing quick and easy access, though they are a different product to a web app. For example the facebook downloadable app.
Unlike web apps, native products do NOT need to be constantly connected to the internet. Whilst they will require updating (through a connection), they can still be used offline and eventually send and receive data when they get that glorious internet connection.
The term native simply means that the app is native to your smartphone or another device.
Hybrid apps are a little more complicated - they effectively combine elements from both web and native apps, allowing developers and consumers alike to experience the ‘best of both worlds’.
In most cases, a hybrid app is simply a web app that’s been ‘repackaged’ into a native app shell. This will give your device the ease and convenience of a native app, with the connectivity and power of a web app.
Progressive Web App
A progressive app takes bits of web apps and native apps before merging them into an accessible web application that works both on and offline. They’re very similar to hybrid apps but they are not distributed through an app store.
Progressive apps actually run in the browser just like a normal web app, which means that users MAY need to have an internet connection to gain access to the app, though they won’t need to maintain an active connection as they use it. They can then be “saved” to the users' phone, giving the app additional access to native capabilities.
Unlike hybrid apps, progressive apps don’t have to be included in an app store as they run in the browser – this doesn’t mean that they can’t be added to the app store, though!
PWAs work by storing information in a web browser’s cache – it can be later recalled for quick offline access from within the browser.
As with anything else, there are a few pros and cons to web apps and native apps that you need to be aware of, especially if you’re planning on building a brand new product or service. You should choose whether to create a web, mobile or hybrid app based on the benefits of each, and the service that you wish to provide.
Here, we’ll break down the pros and cons of each app type, so that you can decide for yourself which one will be the most beneficial for your product.
The main advantage of a web app is that it doesn’t need to be installed directly to the device like a native app does; you simply need to identify the web address (or domain name) and the web app will load straight into your browser.
Web apps are super-functional, as they can operate on a variety of web browsers, usually without the need for a user to install additional plugins or extensions. They can be just as functional on Firefox or Chrome via your desktop as they are using Safari on your iPhone! They are the easiest way for people to not only learn about your SaaS app but sign up there and then.
As web apps aren’t as specialised as their native counterparts, they’re much easier (and subsequently much cheaper) to build than a native SaaS app would be. They generally use a common codebase, regardless of what platform is used to access them, making it much easier to maintain them in the long-run.
Web apps can also be updated without any kind of app store as a middle layer between you and your customers. If you decide to roll out a feature, it’s a simple case of updating your website.
Perhaps the biggest downfall to a web app is its inability to function offline; in order to work in any case, the user must have an active internet connection at all times. Web apps also tend to be noticeably slower as they access data from a server. They also have less attractive features than native mobile apps, which can really put potential users off.
Web apps also heavily depend on visitors already knowing about the service or being referred from another source – unlike native apps, they’re not listed in an ‘official’ database (app store, Google Play store, Amazon…), which can make them significantly less visible, meaning that it's harder for you to build a reliable, returning audience.
Unlike a web app, which requires constant internet access and a supported browser, a mobile (native) app can be installed directly onto the device. This means that users don’t need to always have a connection to access the app, though many apps do have features that require the use of the internet.
As native apps are installed directly onto your smartphone, they have access to system resources – this also makes them faster and more responsive. Native apps do have greater functions, too: they can access the unique features of your device, such as the camera or your location, to provide a better service.
Contrary to belief, native apps can also be easier to build than web apps, due to the abundance of quality developer tools. They combine intuitive, easy to follow and user-friendly interfaces with creative software developer kits to provide an outstanding amount of control over the app.
The biggest con to using a native app is that it must be updated regularly by the user, otherwise, it can become defunct or out-dated. Providing regular updates can become costly, too, but is essential if you want to provide a smooth, easy-to-use service.
As a native app must be developed individually for each platform, it is much more expensive than building a web app. Just think – you’ll have to make apps for iOS and Android! Each of these will have different requirements, which often means that you’ll need to start from square one. Usually more than once.
Individual app stores also have different requirements that MUST be met in order to list your app – obtaining permission can be a lengthy (and costly) process.
The primary benefit of creating a hybrid app is the cost: you can develop what looks and feels like a native app, only at a fraction of the cost. This is because hybrid apps are web apps packaged in a native ‘shell’ – whilst a developer will need to ‘wrap’ the content in a native container, it will largely have the functionality and features of a web app.
Hybrid apps are also quicker to produce than native apps, making them a strong ‘middle ground’ for developers who don’t need to provide custom features and who need to release their app on a tight deadline.
Hybrid apps can utilise features that typically only a native app would, such as your system resources. This might give them the power to use your camera, emojis or other desirable features of the handset. They’re also built using one codebase (similar to web apps), allowing them to be quickly and easily ported to other operating systems.
If you already have a team of web developers, the learning curve is not too difficult to build hybrid apps.
It’s important to remember that hybrid apps are essentially repurposed web apps – this means that they do require an internet connection at all times to be functional. As they don’t require a specific browser, however, they might not consume as much data as a full web app will!
Hybrid apps rely on plugins to make use of your device resources, unlike mobile apps which can obtain full access to your system – this means that whilst a hybrid app will be able to use certain device features, it might not have complete access to the system resources.
Similarly, developers may find that certain features of a hybrid app aren’t supported on every operating system, which will lead to potentially costly modifications in order to ensure the app’s functionality on every device.
One of the better functions of a PWA is that it works in any supported browser, whilst providing quality offline access. They also load much quicker than traditional web apps, making a visitor much more likely to stick around or respond to your CTAs.
PWAs are also quicker (and easier) to build than many native mobile apps, due to the fact that they are built on a standard codebase in order to be compatible with a web browser. This gives PWAs the added benefit of being cross-platform compatible; you won’t need to redesign or recreate the app to ensure that it works just as well on an Android device as it does on an Apple counterpart.
PWAs also have access to features that a native web app would, which makes them incredibly accessible, fluid and easy to use.
A progressive web app might sound like a perfect solution: the benefits and perks of a native app, with the codebase and cost of a web app. There are a couple of things that you do need to be aware of though, especially if you’re planning on creating a new app for your business.
The biggest downfall to PWAs is that they don’t have access to all of your system resources, meaning that a native app may still be required. This is only something that you need to consider, though, if you actually need to make use of the native device features.
PWA's can also be a massive drain to a user’s battery. They are much more demanding than both web apps and native apps, so users may not use the app for as long as they would use a mobile or web version.
They generally provide a less personal response to app users, as they can’t access things such as your contacts, device Bluetooth, proximity sensors or wake lock.
Hopefully from this information, you can determine which is best for your SaaS app idea. As you can see there are many pro’s and cons and a lot to take into consideration when developing an app idea.
SaaS apps do tend to leverage each of these technologies in time but may not be wise to invest in them all when you are just starting out. If you do want to deliver your app on a variety of platforms just consider what the user will expect from each experience and provide that experience on the given platform (which may vary from each version of your app).
By far the simplest way to deliver a SaaS app is as a web app. You can build these fairly cheaply and begin testing your product on your users to verify its importance. In time, it's easy to port this into a hybrid app or a PWA. In time, when you have the ball rolling it might be great to then invest in a native app with all the bells and whistles users come to expect.
Once again though, only go down the route of native if you truly need the sort of features only available to native apps and your SaaS app will benefit heavily from it.
There are all sorts of ways that an app can be built; it largely depends on whether you’re making a web app or a native app, or what platform you’re actually designing the app for.
Web apps are arguably the easiest to make, as they don’t require specialist tools or systems. Web apps are built using a coding language – there are so many books and tutorials on learning to code, making web apps a much more accessible alternative to mobile apps.
Mobile apps are much more specific, which is why they are regarded as being harder to build and more expensive. They don’t necessarily need to take longer, but they do require specialist knowledge or even a specific set of developer tools.
If you were to build a native app, you would require an IDE or Integrated Development Environment. Don’t be put off by this; it’s not as technical as it sounds.
An IDE will be specific to the intended release platform – it’s a development environment that’s been integrated for use with a specific OS, such as iOS or Android. A great (and free) one is Microsoft's Visual Studio Code.
Apple apps are put together using Objective-C or Swift (which are both coding languages), alongside an IDE called Xcode.
Android apps are built using Java (like certain web or hybrid apps), though there are multiple IDEs available for Android apps. One such popular one would be IntelliJ.
Remember, there’s more to developing an app than code. A team is needed to really build a SaaS app that will last and each team member adds just one piece of the puzzle to build an app.
It helps to start to think about your branding. You may already have this in place and it will no doubt play a part in your SaaS app.
UX stands for User Experience and it’s the cornerstone to how your users navigate your app. User Experience plays many roles. It can encourage a particular action from your user purely by its layout and composition, even the wording or copywriting can have this effect which all comes under the umbrella of UX. Don’t assume that a UX Designer can copywrite but copywriting will play a part in developing user journey’s.
It can also take into account how to make things easier and intuitive for your users which, in turn, makes for happy customers that return time and time again.
UI design or ‘The Design’ of your app is the layer on top of the UX. Think of the UX Design of your app as the skeleton and then the UI design as the skin.
Once again, UI design can play a role in encouraging user actions but it relies heavily on the user research and understanding that UX plays.
The UI design also respects and understands your brand and visual language.
You might be wondering how you can learn to be an app developer yourself. If you are, we say go for it; it’s an invaluable and highly sought-after skill. You’ve got nothing to lose!
You need to be prepared to invest a LOT of time into learning how to code an app, but don’t worry – there are plenty of options available to you.
Many people choose to use the internet to learn – it might seem like old news now, but there’s an app for that!
Just have a look at your app store, and I’m sure you’ll find a learning tool that works for you. Alternatively, you can use online resources such as Lynda and YouTube to provide tailored tutorials depending on what you want to achieve.
There’s an assortment of books available, too – the ‘Dummy’ series is a great entry point for beginner coders looking to build their skills.
Just remember, as, with any skill, it’s important to keep practising. Rome wasn’t built in a day – neither were any of the apps you use on a daily basis.
Keep pushing, and you’ll be seeing results in no time.
If learning how to code doesn’t seem like something you have time for you can, of course, outsource your app development. There are many design and development agencies out there that can either do it all or specialise in SaaS app development and SaaS product development.
Hopefully, this article will make you far more informed about what kind of agency to look out for.
It’s so important to know that unless you have a firm understanding of your users and how to study and build on their behaviours then your app development agency must be proficient in UX and offer this as part of their service or at least some form of knowledge in it.
Same for design. You can again have a crack at designing your SaaS app yourself but UI and UX are so closely intertwined that just because your app looks great, does not mean it will convert customers. Having an agency that can design is crucial.
Once your SaaS app is live, you’ll need to make sure you have an in-house team to support it if it goes down. You’ll also need them to build features because in this fast-paced world, as you gain users with different needs you’ll want to monitor and cater to those needs.
Your SaaS app can’t stay stagnant. Users expect new features and they expect to be heard so building a product is a huge investment in both time and resources. If you’re not looking to build out an in-house team to maintain the product, make sure your agency is offering the maintenance to keep the money flowing and your users happy.
So there we have it. Hopefully, this article has not only taught you what the difference is between Web apps, Native apps, Hybrid apps and Progressive Web Apps but we’ve also touched on how you can go about learning these technologies. We should have also subsequently helped you understand how you can build your own SaaS application and what to look out for in others building your application.
The final piece to the puzzle is designing an awesome landing page that actually demonstrates how awesome your product is so why not check out our article on how to design an effective landing page.
Our parting thought is to make sure you’re building apps that enrich the lives of your customers and help them become better people. Listen to their needs, build a tool that works for them and this will help you succeed with your SaaS app or product.