The term "mobile app" refers to a self-contained computer program designed to execute on a mobile device. Today, the Android and iOS operating systems cumulatively comprise more than 99% of the mobile OS market share. Additionally, mobile internet usage has surpassed desktop usage for the first time in history, making mobile browsing and apps the most widespread kind of internet-capable applications.
In this guide, we'll use the term "app" as a general term for referring to any kind of application running on popular mobile OSes.
In a basic sense, apps are designed to run either directly on the platform for which they’re designed, on top of a smart device’s mobile browser, or using a mix of the two. Throughout the following chapter, we will define characteristics that qualify an app for its respective place in mobile app taxonomy as well as discuss differences for each variation.
Mobile operating systems, including Android and iOS, come with a Software Development Kit (SDK) for developing applications specific to the OS. Such applications are referred to as native to the system for which they have been developed. When discussing an app, the general assumption is that it is a native app implemented in a standard programming language for the respective operating system - Objective-C or Swift for iOS, and Java or Kotlin for Android.
Native apps inherently have the capability to provide the fastest performance with the highest degree of reliability. They usually adhere to platform-specific design principles (e.g. the Android Design Principles), which tends to result in a more consistent user interface (UI) compared to hybrid or web apps. Due to their close integration with the operating system, native apps can directly access almost every component of the device (camera, sensors, hardware-backed key stores, etc.).
Some ambiguity exists when discussing native apps for Android as the platform provides two development kits - the Android SDK and the Android NDK. The SDK, which is based on the Java and Kotlin programming language, is the default for developing apps. The NDK (or Native Development Kit) is a C/C++ development kit used for developing binary libraries that can directly access lower level APIs (such as OpenGL). These libraries can be included in regular apps built with the SDK. Therefore, we say that Android native apps (i.e. built with the SDK) may have native code built with the NDK.
The most obvious downside of native apps is that they target only one specific platform. To build the same app for both Android and iOS, one needs to maintain two independent code bases, or introduce often complex development tools to port a single code base to two platforms (e.g. Xamarin).
Mobile web apps (or simply, web apps) are websites designed to look and feel like a native app. These apps run on top of a device’s browser and are usually developed in HTML5, much like a modern webpage. Launcher icons may be created to parallel the same feel of accessing a native app; however, these icons are essentially the same as a browser bookmark, simply opening the default web browser to load the referenced web page.
Web apps have limited integration with the general components of the device as they run within the confines of a browser (i.e. they are “sandboxed”) and usually lack in performance compared to native apps. Since a web app typically targets multiple platforms, their UIs do not follow some of the design principles of a specific platform. The biggest advantage is reduced development and maintenance costs associated with a single code base as well as enabling developers to distribute updates without engaging the platform-specific app stores. For example, a change to the HTML file for a web app can serve as viable, cross-platform update whereas an update to a store-based app requires considerably more effort.
Hybrid apps attempt to fill the gap between native and web apps. A hybrid app executes like a native app, but a majority of the processes rely on web technologies, meaning a portion of the app runs in an embedded web browser (commonly called “webview”). As such, hybrid apps inherit both pros and cons of native and web apps.
A web-to-native abstraction layer enables access to device capabilities for hybrid apps not accessible to a pure web app. Depending on the framework used for development, one code base can result in multiple applications that target different platforms, with a UI closely resembling that of the original platform for which the app was developed.
Following is a non-exhaustive list of more popular frameworks for developing hybrid apps:
Progressive Web Apps (PWA) load like regular web pages, but differ from usual web apps in several ways. For example it's possible to work offline and access to mobile device hardware is possible, that traditionally is only available to native mobile apps.
PWAs combine different open standards of the web offered by modern browsers to provide benefits of a rich mobile experience. A Web App Manifest, which is a simple JSON file, can be used to configure the behaviour of the app after "installation".
PWAs are supported by Android and iOS, but not all hardware features are yet available. For example Push Notifications, Face ID on iPhone X or ARKit for augmented reality is not available yet on iOS. An overview of PWA and supported features on each platform can be found in a Medium article from Maximiliano Firtman.
Throughout this guide, we will focus on apps for the two platforms dominating the market: Android and iOS. Mobile devices are currently the most common device class running these platforms – increasingly however, the same platforms (in particular, Android) run on other devices, such as smartwatches, TVs, car navigation/audio systems, and other embedded systems.
Given the vast amount of mobile app frameworks available it would be impossible to cover all of them exhaustively. Therefore, we focus on native apps on each operating system. However, the same techniques are also useful when dealing with web or hybrid apps (ultimately, no matter the framework, every app is based on native components).