App design / 3 min read

How does a mobile app work?

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By Nik / April 07, 2021

How does a mobile app work?

You’re probably using ‘apps’ several times a day – but what are they? And how does a mobile app work?

App is an abbreviation of the word “application”. Applications are a piece of software that can be downloaded on your computer, mobile or tablet to perform a task. Mobile apps are programmes that are specifically designed to work on your mobile phone or tablet.

In the last few years, they’ve become essential to people’s lives. According to Statista, as of the fourth quarter of 2019, Android users were able to choose between 2.57 million apps and on Apple’s App Store and there were almost 1.84 million available apps for iOS but how many of us actually know how a mobile app works?

What types of mobile apps are there?

Before we get started on explaining how mobile apps work it’s important to clarify that there are different types of mobile apps. There are three basic types of mobile apps:

Native apps

Native apps are built just for one specific platform or operating system (Android, iOS, Blackberry, etc).  You cannot mix and match (you can’t have an Android app on an iOS phone, for example). The advantage is that native apps are faster, have longer battery power, are more reliable and you have access to the features of your device (camera, contacts, etc).

Web (or progressive) apps

Web apps are accessed via a web browser and are responsive versions of websites. In this sense, they are not standalone apps where you have to download and install it on your device. The advantage is that there’s nothing to download, but web apps are entirely dependent on the browser you use on the device (which means limited functionalities). They will need an internet connection to work. You might come across the term progressive web app (PWA) – this is a native app running inside a browser.

Hybrid apps

Hybrid apps are a combination of native and web apps. They might have a home screen app icon, some responsive design and might even work offline. But they are really web apps with a native app shell.

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How do mobile apps work?

Every app is different and there are some nuances to how each works but essentially they all follow the same process. They bundle bits of software together to create a single application that solves a problem for anyone who downloads it.

Take a banking app as an example. They’ve combined a number of features that they have and repackaged them so they’re mobile-friendly and work quicker. They’ve taken things like:

Apps offer a streamlined experience in comparison to websites

They’ve then got rid of all the other features on the website that people don’t use so that it’s a nice streamlined experience.

And that’s the essence behind most apps. Bits of software, mobile-first designs and functional programme that works on your mobile.

What do apps do?

Originally, apps were pretty functional things. They were intended to help with tasks, assist with calendars, email and contact databases. But that all changed. Now apps can do anything or be anything. The range from:

What do apps do?

And the list goes on and on and on.

What types of data can apps access?

In order to do some of the things above you may be asked for permission to let your mobile app have access to information on your device. Some apps may be able to access:

Some apps access only the data they need to function; others access data that is not necessary for the functioning of the app. Having an app is a constant trade-off between making your life easier and giving away a bit of data about yourself. You can change the privacy settings for the above but it may impact its functionality. So before you download a mobile app you need to ask yourself whether you’re okay with the data you’re giving away.

How do I download an app?

In order to use a mobile app, you need a smartphone, tablet or another mobile device with internet access. Not all apps work on all mobile devices. Once you buy a device, you’re committed to using the operating system and the type of apps that go with it.

Mobile operating systems that have app stores online are Android, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and BlackBerry from where you can download and install apps on your device. You’ll have to use an app store that works with your device’s operating system. To set up an account, you may have to provide a credit card number (especially if you’re downloading an app that isn’t free).

So there’s a rough idea of how a mobile app works. The art is in making one that people will want to use. If you’re interested in creating an app with us then visit our mobile app design page for more information or want to know more? Contact us for a free two-hour session.

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