What Is a Mobile Application?

A mobile application is a software application developed specifically for use with a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. Many people think of mobile apps in the context of 21st century web-based smartphones. However, they date back to the 1980s.

  • In 1984, we saw the launch of the Psion Organiser. This was the "World's First Practical Pocket Computer". It was loaded with apps such as a calculator and a clock.
  • In 1994, IBM introduced ‘Simon’. This Personal Digital Assistant could send and receive faxes and emails. It also featured applications such as an address book, calendar, and meeting schedule. Many people think of this as the world’s first true smartphone.
  • In 2002, Blackberry launched its smartphone. This featured an email function. It quickly became the ‘must-have’ device for the business person on the move.
  • Apple launched its iPhone in 2007. The following year, it launched the App Store. This initially had 500 apps, 25% free to download. This was an immediate success. In the first 72 hours, over 10 million apps were downloaded. The Google Play store launched a few months later. This signaled the start of the mobile app phenomenon we know today.

The number of mobile apps developed now exceeds nine million. And in 2020, there were a total of 218 billion mobile app downloads. The most popular categories were chat apps (downloaded by 90.7% of mobile users) and social media apps (88.4%). Other popular types of mobile apps include those for mobile commerce (69.4%), entertainment and video (67.2%), and maps (61.8%). Music (52.9%) and games (50%) are also popular.

Types of Business Apps

If you are considering mobile application development, you should know that three main app types available:

  • Native apps
  • Progressive web apps
  • Hybrid apps.

Each offers a different user experience and user interface.

Native Applications

A native app is written for use on a specified platform or device. (Apple's iOS and Google's Android account for 99% of mobile devices.) Because of this, native apps can take advantage of device-specific hardware and software (e.g., a camera). They are usually highly performant and offer the mobile user a rich experience.

However, the user must download the app from a store. This is often a barrier to adoption. Native apps are also, by definition, not cross-platform, with a development process unique to each. For example, they are written in the coding language specific to the mobile platform. So, iOS apps are written in Objective-C or Swift, while Android apps use Java. This also presents as a development barrier due to the complexity of mobile software development and the lack and cost of specialized developers.

Progressive Web Applications

According to Gartner, a mobile web application needs only a web browser to work. Unlike native apps, progressive web apps (PWAs) will therefore work on any mobile platform. Like native apps, PWAs can work offline, send push notifications, and access device hardware, such as cameras or GPS. The user experiences are similar to native apps on mobile and desktop devices without downloading or updating hassles, with great benefit — they run well on top of poor connectivity.

In addition to that, from an end-user perspective, PWAs are easy to use their mobile devices (no app store) and are lightweight. And from a dev perspective, they are way faster to change than native apps, and they are easier to maintain. Plus, unlike native apps, they use one codebase for all devices and are searchable by search engines and light.

Hybrid Applications

As the name suggests, a hybrid app combines aspects of native and web apps. You can think of them as web apps that have been put in the shell (or container) of a native app. Like native apps, hybrid apps must be downloaded from an app store. Once installed on the mobile device, the shell uses an embedded browser to access the capabilities of the native platform. Hybrid apps have several advantages – and some limitations.

Like web apps, hybrid apps are easier to develop than native apps. They also don’t have to be written anew for each platform. Both factors make it much easier and cheaper to access the development skills needed to create a hybrid app. This may be a critical consideration as there is now an acute global shortage of developers. A key benefit of hybrid apps is that no further validation is needed once they are approved for inclusion in an app store. This assumes any upgrade makes no change to the native code.

However, hybrid apps do not offer the rich user experience of a native app. Nor can they take advantage of all the features of the mobile platform. They also perform more slowly than native apps as they are limited by the speed of the embedded browser. Some users may also be put off by the need to go to an app store to download the app.

Mobile App Distribution

Once your mobile app is created, in the case of hybrid and native, it must be approved for inclusion on an app store. There is no guarantee that this will happen. For example, Apple said it rejected applications for nearly one million new apps in 2020.

The two major app stores are Google Play and Apple’s App Store. Both Amazon (for their Kindle devices) and Samsung also have app stores. However, these host a much smaller selection of apps.

Once on the app store, your next task is to promote it. Your app needs to be easily discoverable on the app store. But you can also promote it via blogs and social media.

Building Mobile Apps with OutSystems

OutSystems is a modern low-code application development platform that allows you to build web and mobile apps faster, right, and for the future. With OutSystems for mobile, you can:

  • Build a mobile app: These are applications that users install on their phones, have access to the device’s sensors, can work offline, and have a UX designed for a native experience.

  • Build a responsive web app: These are applications that users can access from their mobile browsers without installation and that use web responsive technologies to automatically adapt to multiple devices and browsers.

  • Build only your mobile backend: Use OutSystems as the backend for your custom-built native mobile app, using traditional tools such as XCode, Android Studio, or Visual Studio and respective native languages.

Want to give it a try? Sign-up for our free edition (yes, it’s free forever).