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What is a Mobile App? Understanding Development Basics

Learn what a mobile app is and understand the basics of development. Get expert insights from Ramotion. Read now!

Written by RamotionJun 29, 202411 min read

Last updated: Jun 29, 2024

Mobile apps have become increasingly popular with the rising popularity of digital platforms. Whether scrolling through social media in the subway, checking your bank statement while having coffee, or attending a work meeting while driving, chances are you’re using a mobile application.

Mobile applications have taken the world by storm in the last few years. According to Statista, global mobile phone users spent around 16 billion hours on mobile apps in 2023. This number has seen a 24% increase from 2022, indicating the rise in the popularity of mobile applications.

This rapid increase in the design and use of mobile applications draws the attention of professional and aspiring UX designers alike, particularly those passionate about working in an app development agency. Many apps have over a million downloads yearly, thus serving as the cases from which we can learn.

In this article, we first define a mobile application and then describe its types. We then discuss its key components and introduce some tools that can improve its design and development. We also discuss modern challenges in mobile app development.

Read along as we discuss this popular and highly relevant topic.

Defining a Mobile Application

As the name indicates, a mobile application — or mobile app — is a program created for mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. With many people using different types of smartphones, mobile applications are becoming increasingly popular.

A Brief History of Mobile Applications

The history of mobile applications goes back to 1997, when Nokia launched its first Snake game for early mobile phones. Later, with the introduction of smartphones, the process of mobile app development – and the nature of the apps themselves – became more sophisticated.

With the launch of the iPhone in 2007, the Apple App Store, and Google Play Store in 2012, developers now created specific applications for these operating systems.

Similarly, other app stores, such as the ones for Windows mobile devices and Blackberry devices, also gained popularity at various times and in different regions worldwide.

In the last two decades, mobile applications have seen significant growth. Now, we have several different types of apps, such as web apps and hybrid mobile apps.

Significance of Mobile Applications

Mobile applications are very significant for both users and businesses. These apps provide better engagement and experience to users and also increase customer loyalty.

Regarding the user experience, mobile devices provide flexibility and ease of use. Users can stay on top of things from anywhere in the world. Mobile applications also help people multitask, making them more productive and efficient. The fact that users can get push notifications anytime adds to the utility of these apps.

For businesses, mobile applications increase customer satisfaction, making their lives easier. These apps also allow businesses to create their own designs, enabling them to better focus on their branding.

Types of Apps

Several different types of apps are available to users. The nature of these apps varies because of their design, the platforms they are created for, and their functionality. Some popular types of mobile apps are discussed below.

Native Apps

Native mobile apps are designed for a particular operating system or type of mobile device, such as Android or iOS.

Native applications are designed using platform-specific programming languages and, therefore, written in native code. They are distributed via operating systems' official platforms or stores, such as the App Store or Google Play Store. However, native apps take longer to develop and must be downloaded on the devices, making the entire process somewhat tedious.

Most social media apps, such as WhatsApp for iOS and Android, are common examples of native apps.

Web Apps

Web applications are designed to run on internet browsers, regardless of the device used.

The utility of web apps is increased as, unlike native apps, these apps can be used on a mobile device or a desktop computer without the need to install a new program.

All the users need is a web browser to access the apps. The limitation with these apps is that there are limitations because of the browsers, so the design must be more personalized and sophisticated.

Example of a Web App (Image Source)

Some examples of web apps include platforms like Google Docs and Microsoft Outlook.

Hybrid Apps

As the name suggests, hybrid applications lie somewhere between native and web apps.

Like native apps, hybrid apps need to be downloaded on mobile devices. However, their design is simple, similar to a mobile web application. This makes the development process simpler and quicker and restricts the design of affordances.

Uber is one example of a hybrid app whose interface is similar to its web version.

Desktop Apps

Desktop apps are used on computers instead of handheld devices. Although not entirely a type of mobile application, the design of these apps gives a good perspective into the app development process.

Desktop apps are special software programs that are downloaded on desktop devices and designed to be used on these systems. These apps are highly sophisticated and offer a lot of functionality. However, the cost involved in their design is much higher than that of web applications.

One common example of a desktop app is Adobe Photoshop.

Progressive Web Apps

Progressive web apps are a new concept in app design, designed to improve the user experience of web applications.

Progressive web apps are designed using high-level programming languages, such as Objective-C. They provide an experience similar to native apps but need not be downloaded on the device, thus making users' lives easier.

Pinterest is one of the most popular progressive web apps, gaining much attention.

Legacy Apps

Legacy apps refer to the older – obsolete – versions of mobile applications that are no longer being updated.

Legacy apps have outdated technologies, and, therefore, their interface and experience are not as modern or sophisticated as those of native or progressive web apps. However, these apps are still in use because of the functionality they offer and their loyal user base.

Example of a Legacy App (Image Source)

Adobe FrameMaker 6 (legacy edition) is one example of legacy apps. Similarly, other obsolete software and apps fall into this category.

Key Components of a Mobile App

Now that we’ve examined the types of applications, including desktop and mobile web applications, let's examine the key components to consider when designing and developing these apps.

1. User Interface (UI)

User interface (UI) design is one of the most important aspects of any mobile application. UI focuses on the look and feel of the app. When designing mobile applications, designers should consider the key principles of consistency, visual hierarchy, and simplicity.

2. User Experience (UX)

User experience (UX) is another important component of a mobile application. UX takes a holistic approach and plays a significant role in determining user satisfaction when the end users interact with their mobile phones. While focusing on UX, some important areas to consider include the app's overall usability, ease of navigation, and user control.

3. Backend Services

Backend services are important in handling many background processes and tasks, such as accessing files, directing users to the right content, performing efficient searches, etc. It is important to consider these services as they improve the speed of software development and reduce costs.

Backend services help in creating responsive web and mobile applications. Some popular services include Firebase, Backendless, and AWS Amplify.

4. API Integration

APIs are important for any mobile application as these help establish communication between the mobile apps and backend systems. From search engines to integrations, these services improve the functionality of a mobile application, adding to the user experience. Google Maps API and AccuWeather API, along with others, are some essential APIs for mobile applications.

Steps in Mobile App Development

Mobile application development is a methodical process. Designers and developers must take every step seriously. 

The most important steps to build a mobile application are as follows.

1. Idea and Planning

The design and development of a mobile application begins with defining the problem and clarifying the goals. Having a clear goal and a good understanding of the desired outcomes is critical. Additionally, identifying the target audience and understanding their needs helps design the best solutions.

2. Design and Prototyping

After the ideation and planning phase, wireframing and prototyping begin. This is where developers can use designers' skill sets and focus on visual design and usability. This step is important as it helps realize all ideas and enables developers to see them in the real world.

3. Development

Once the prototypes are developed, the next step is to move into the development phase, where backend and frontend operations are designed. This is where appropriate technologies are selected, and developers create the best solutions.

4. Testing

Once a mobile app is developed, it moves into the testing phase. This is where mobile users are brought in to test the design and perform certain tasks. Different types of tests can be performed, such as A/B testing and usability testing. The testing phase ensures that the best design is made available to the target audience.

5. Deployment and Maintenance

The incorporation of the users’ feedback, iterations in design, and the resulting improvements lead to the final design, which can then be deployed on the respective platforms.

In this step, developers make the final tweaks and publish the mobile app. Additionally, it is important to devise a long-term testing and auditing strategy that can help maintain the app. This will ensure that the app stays updated and keeps on getting better.

The development of mobile apps requires several tools and technologies. Developers and designers can seek help from a wide range of tools. Some of the most popular types of tools are discussed below.

Development Frameworks

Development frameworks help provide quick and efficient solutions and cost-effectively ensure cross-platform compatibility. Some common examples of development frameworks for mobile app design include React Native, Flutter, Ionic, and [NativeScript](https://nativescript.org/.

Design Tools

Design tools help improve the overall user experience and visual design of a mobile application. They also help in the ideation and prototyping phases, helping developers visualize possible solutions. Some highly rated design and prototyping tools include Sketch, Figma, and Adobe XD.

Figma for Design and Prototyping

Backend Services

Backend services play a critical role in data management and privacy and security concerns for mobile applications. These apps also allow for third-party integrations. Some important backend services and cloud platforms for mobile app development include Back4app, Firebase, and Digital Ocean.

Benefits of Mobile Apps for Businesses

Mobile apps have quickly become a necessity for modern businesses. Having a mobile app for physical and digital products has a significant impact on an organization's success.

Some of the important benefits of mobile apps for businesses are as follows.

1. Increased Customer Engagement

Mobile apps play a critical role in increasing customer engagement. These apps can be used to share instructional content, develop a social network, and help and support users.

The products and services that leverage the power of mobile apps can deliver a more interactive and engaging experience, adding to overall customer satisfaction.

2. Improved Efficiency and Productivity

Mobile apps also help improve businesses' overall efficiency and productivity. Businesses can conduct user testing by developing A/B tests, testing ideas, and gathering quick feedback.

Additionally, mobile apps can also be used to streamline internal communication, making the processes smooth and efficient.

3. Competitive Advantage

Products and services with mobile apps gain a significant competitive advantage over those without the apps. These businesses can deploy several engaging and interactive experiences for users and present a stronger brand image.

Challenges in Mobile App Development

Like any other software and design problem, the development of mobile apps is not free of challenges. Designers and developers encounter several issues and have some serious concerns regarding the development and deployment of mobile apps.

Some of the important challenges in mobile app development are as follows.

Platform Fragmentation

With various operating systems for mobile devices, hardware, and software requirements, it can be challenging to ensure a consistent design across different platforms. Designers and developers are often challenged to find a trade-off and maintain performance.

Security Concerns

Data security and privacy are serious concerns for any digital service, and mobile apps are no different. Good backend services and APIs can help overcome these issues, but new challenges keep arising, demanding that developers keep updating their apps' security.

Performance Issues

The pace at which the digital world is transforming can quickly render mobile apps obsolete—or at least old school. Similarly, with the updates in operating systems, the apps need some modifications. This is related to the apps' performance and overall design.

Therefore, it is important to conduct performance tests at regular intervals to ensure that the app is performing as expected.


With over 2 million iOS apps and around 3 million Android apps on the Google Play Store, mobile apps are becoming increasingly popular. Designers and developers must understand the nuances of mobile apps and the key concerns involved in their development and distribution.

This article covered important concepts regarding mobile apps, indicating their significance for businesses and end users. Mobile apps are ever-changing, and these concepts will always be useful.