The comparison between web applications and desktop applications
The broad technological stack we use at DevInterface allows us to develop excellent web applications for our clients, so we would like to give a brief overview here of when we take this approach. However, before providing an overview of the advantages and disadvantages between web and desktop applications, it is important to clearly define what is meant by the respective terms.
As the name suggests, web applications, or web-based applications, are programmes that are accessed online. Access typically occurs through a browser, for example, Chrome, Firefox, or Edge. Web applications must not be installed on the user's computer. The application, as such, is located on a remote server and is usually transferred to the user's computer via an HTTP protocol. The web application is not installed locally on the user's computer.
In contrast, desktop applications are installed locally on the computer. All the resources required to run the application are available locally on the computer. To function properly, desktop applications are attached to the operating system. Anyone who has tried to install Word on a Mac in the early days of Microsoft Office programmes will fully understand the problem.
In principle, making software available via a web browser is the most modern option. However, both methods have advantages and disadvantages that deserve further analysis.
Benefits of the desktop application
Independent of Internet access: the fact that a desktop application is independent of Internet access might seem trivial, because, after all, that is the main difference between a web application. However, this freedom from the Internet presents some advantages. The desktop applications are usually faster. They do not depend on the speed of the Internet connection. This independence from the Internet is beneficial in both the short and long term. Since desktop applications are locally installed, they are not necessarily hosted on a server. Even if web hosting has become relatively economical, this cost factor is completely replaced by desktop applications.
Cooperation between software and hardware: desktop applications are also called native applications, and not without reason. They are at home with the installed operating system. It is very likely that a desktop application will respond better to the hardware components of the computer on which it is installed and thus run much more smoothly. A native application can also access the hardware components, which makes the user experience smoother. Desktop applications are not just 'made for this'; they are made for that.
Control: desktop applications allow complete control over the application's data storage. Local installation means local data storage. Although there are now a wide range of options for data encryption, a purely local application is probably more secure. Provided that the application does not come from a dodgy website.
Drawbacks of the desktop application
Native applications are hardware-limited: although the development adapted to the hardware, the desktop application was just designed to be advantageous, which is also the first disadvantage to be mentioned. This adaptation to the housing also leads to hardware dependency. If, for example, the memory is not sufficient, extensions are no longer possible.
Desktop applications are limited to a single computer: a desktop application is limited to a single computer. After installation, the user is dependent on having the device with them all the time. This means that a native application is always available offline, but is also ONLY available offline. Accessibility of a local application from another device is impossible without the Internet.
Installation: desktop applications must be installed. There's no way around it. While the installation process of most desktop applications is now extremely simple, installation is always an obstacle for potential users. As web applications today often handle the login process via third-party providers such as Facebook or Apple ID, downloading and installing a desktop application seems like a real challenge.
Development and maintenance costs: the development and maintenance costs of a native application are relatively higher. An application must be developed individually for each operating system. The same goes for the maintenance costs of desktop applications. This needs to be done on the computer on which the programme is installed and then on site. In this case, a desktop application is comparable to a physical machine.
Lack of data sharing and synchronisation: desktop application data cannot be easily shared with other users and backups have to be performed manually. Application updates require manual downloads and installations, with the risk of compatibility problems. In the event of computer failure, there is a high risk of total data loss unless regular backups are made, an activity often neglected by users. This lack of flexibility and security can be a serious drawback, especially in today's environment where fast and secure data sharing is essential for many daily activities.
Benefits of Web-based applications
Access: access, anytime and from anywhere (at least as long as there is an Internet connection) and all with multiple users at the same time. All regardless of the hardware used. This is arguably the greatest advantage of the web-based application over a desktop application. Especially the possibility of working simultaneously with multiple users within a single programme is what makes web applications so attractive in today's era. Also, access via several mobile devices offers the advantage of not having to carry a single piece of hardware with you at all times.
Download nothing, install nothing: web-based applications do not require downloading or installation. As previously mentioned, login in web-based applications today is also often done via third-party providers, such as Facebook or Apple ID. Therefore, the barrier of entry for users is much lower with web applications. Similarly, this increases the user experience coherence, as there are no interruptions in the user's path.
Development and maintenance costs: in contrast to desktop applications, web applications do not have to be developed for different operating systems. The only thing that is usually checked is compatibility with the most common browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Explorer. Consequently, the development costs of web applications are typically lower. The same goes for maintenance costs. Because maintenance is not performed on every device, but only once on the application on the server, maintenance costs are reduced many times over.
Data sharing and synchronisation: a great advantage of web applications is the automatic sharing and synchronisation of data on cloud servers, eliminating the need for manual migrations or backups. This data can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection, offering flexibility and security. In addition, working remotely is effortless and application updates are automatic, giving users access to the latest features without complications. This convenience makes web applications an ideal choice for many people and companies.
Drawbacks of Web-based applications
Richiede sempre una connessione internet funzionante: this is not entirely true, because there are now also parts of web applications that are available in offline mode. Nevertheless, a web application remains a web application and takes place on the web. In order to access it, a functioning Internet connection is required. But since the Internet is present almost everywhere today, this is no longer an obstacle in most cases. One important note, however, is that a slow Internet connection can lead to a poor user experience.
Data security: the potential for security vulnerabilities in web applications is much higher, as long as the desktop application has not been downloaded from a dodgy site. The reason for this is that the data is hosted in the cloud. A known example of a hacker attack on a cloud is the 2014 attack on iCloud, when the private material of celebrities was published on the web. An on-premise installation without an Internet connection would not have this problem.
Limited performance: web applications may suffer from limited performance since most of the calculations take place on the server, causing delays in intensive tasks such as 3D rendering or image processing. The dependency on the Internet connection can introduce latency, while running in a browser can lead to problems of excessive CPU and memory usage, especially with multiple tabs open.
Long-term costs: web applications often require monthly or annual subscriptions, which may accumulate over time. In addition, suppliers may increase the prices of subscriptions, increasing costs in the long term. It is crucial to carefully consider the total costs over the years and assess whether a single-cost desktop application may be more cost-effective.
In short, applications should be developed via the web if the following criteria are present
- Users have to access and modify data sets with different roles.
- Special data security requirements
- Agile development is desirable
- Different operating systems must be supported
- The application must be accessible from different locations
- Special hardware plays a secondary role
The native approach, on the other hand, works best when the following criteria are present
- Each user operates on his or her own set of data and these do not have to be synchronised, or are only very rarely synchronised.
- The computing power of the working device is sufficient and must be fully utilised.
- Specific hardware plays an important role
- All users use the same operating system
This summary is obviously a very rough and general representation. Individual software development usually solves a specific problem, which is why we always recommend and are happy to carry out a precise evaluation for each individual case. Almost all use cases can be solved with either approach, but proper planning and selection of the architecture saves enormous costs and effort later on.
Unsure which development approach is right for your project? DevInterface's expertise is reflected in our extensive experience in the field, the competence of our experts and our proven ability to tailor solutions to specific customer needs. That is why we would be happy to advise you with a free initial consultation.