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What Are Mobile Apps?

One of the biggest trends in web development since the rise of the smartphone has been the use of mobile responsive apps. Whether you are already an app developer or want to become one, being able to create an app that responds well to a variety of mobile environments is an essential skill.

You may be wondering what that means and which skills you’ll need to develop. Let’s break the issue down into its pieces so you can understand what a mobile responsive app really is.

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Web App vs. Website

The distinction between creating a web app and a website is important. While a web app is, by definition, hosted on a website, it likely isn’t the whole website. Some single-function sites might be seen as cases where the app and the website are inseparable, but in most cases, the distinction will be more obvious.

A website is inherently informative. It might have some built-in functionality, but that functionality serves the immediate purpose of making text, video, pictures, and other content more appealing.

A web app, conversely, is interactive. You go on the site because you want to do something. You’re not there to do a lot of looking. Instead, you’ll click a button and the app will crunch some numbers to tell you something about your website.

There’s the distinction. Websites inform. Apps do.

Why Mobile Focused Development for Web Apps Is Important

As of the third quarter of 2019, over half of internet traffic came from non-tablet mobile devices. Members of younger generations frequently do not own desktops, laptops, or tablets. Similarly, people who live in emerging economies often bypassed the desktop stage of computing altogether, going straight to mobile when they first gained internet connections.

The near fifty percent figure has remained remarkably stable, too. That suggests that equilibrium may be close to established.

Few organizations can afford to leave half the world off their radar, so mobile responsive app development is an early action for ones deploying new systems or updating old ones.

Display Quality and User Experience

If you’ve ever visited a website that wasn’t designed to be responsive while using a mobile phone, you’ve likely encountered the dreaded scroll bars. Part or most of the site is cropped in your phone’s viewport, and it takes a lot of pinching and squeezing to resize the content to a point where it is tolerable.

Even then, you’ll likely spend a lot of time pulling the screen left and right and up and down. The quality of the display is ugly, and the overall user experience is inherently bad.

Done well, mobile responsive app design will accomplish these goals.

  • Recognize the user’s device and resize the viewport accordingly
  • Prevent items from flowing over the edge of the user’s screen
  • Size fonts to maximize readability
  • Provide methods for quickly tweaking the display
  • Seamlessly adapt sometimes difficult content, such as videos and games, to the user’s environment

To be clear, the more aware the user is of this work, the worse the user experience is. Being truly responsive, a web app must handle all this effort with speed and grace. If the mobile user doesn’t even know what happened and directly proceeds to the functionality part of a web app, then the developer has done a good job.

How Is This Accomplished?

So, you’re a web developer and want your app’s mobile users to have the best experience and the most functionality possible. You accomplish that goal by making sure you’ve done these things.

  • Use the most flexible system possible, preferably one that doesn’t lean heavily on detection of the mobile user’s environment
  • Automatically deploy the solution without mobile user intervention
  • Detect user environments to deal with specialized situations
  • Get the job done without eating tons of bandwidth because users are often on paid mobile networks

There are a variety of tools for the job, but the front-line weapon in the developer’s arsenal is CSS. Cascading Style Sheets are bits of code included with most websites that define things like

  • What fonts are used to display text, headers, links, and other elements of writing
  • Background colors and images
  • Borders
  • Spacing
  • Vertical and horizontal alignment
  • How blocks of elements respond when the screen changes
  • Which elements receive priority when displayed in stacks or overlaps

One of the best things about CSS is that it tends to operate very fast. This is because it operates one level above the Document Object Model (DOM), the layer where the web browser works to make sense of the code it receives in order to display or change it.

CSS calls go straight into the DOM, telling it what all the objects on the mobile screen are. With all the styles in the DOM, everything moves fast because everything is working at the browser’s level.

Dynamic content, however, requires a more robust solution. When people tap on things in a web app, they want to see actions occur. This content can’t go directly into the DOM because it represents too much code to load at one time. Doing so would cross the line between what a web app should be and just creating a full application.

To get dynamic content and interaction going, a web app developer needs a programming language that can readily access a wide range of functions. Fortunately, nearly all web browsers support JavaScript. In a mobile responsive app, JavaScript is used to pass calls to the browser.

Suppose, for example, that a video only pops up on the screen after the user taps on a button. JavaScript is likely what the developer used to code the button press interaction, the pop-up, loading the video player and triggering play. This often requires JavaScript to act as a traffic cop between many layers, including

  • On-page HTML code
  • Elements and their CSS styles
  • DOM
  • Device hardware, such as attached cameras and microphones
  • Remote databases
  • The end user

Suppose you were building a sports scores web app. Loading all the scores across all the leagues in the world is asking too much, and it’s unfair to burn end users’ bandwidth and account data limits on something they’ll never see.

Instead, a web app developer needs to dynamically load the scores the user wants to see. Also, the web app developer probably wants the app to update scores automatically every half-minute or so. Video highlights would be nice, too.

Every time one of these changes happens, the layout of the environment is at risk of being broken. If you’ve ever used a web app and seen the screen pinch and then expand when it loaded new data, this is what’s going on. It pinches when the old data goes out of the main display element, and then it blows up when fresh data comes in.

When not closely tracked in the development process, these changes can cause the mobile responsive design to collapse. The most important tools web app developers use during development are the debugging systems built into the various browsers. These allow them to trace errors and identify what’s breaking the display and functionality.

Finally, JavaScript also handles much of the adjustment when mobile device detection is necessary. For example, many Apple devices, such as the iPhone, don’t provide support for Adobe Flash. Displaying content in an alternate format is usually done by detecting the device and then dynamically loading the content in the best format for it.

Notably, this should be seen as the last solution. If at all possible, a web app developer should try to move functionality over to the most broadly compatible environment. For example, there’s no reason to play video in Flash when an HTML5 solution will do the job well on all modern devices.

Differing Displays

In its ideal form, responsive design provides an infinite-sizes-fit-all solution. Essentially, the same code should be able to run the desktop version of a web app and the mobile one.

Mobile responsiveness, when done well, should include responsiveness for all devices. The solution is to use CSS. When the page loads, all the HTML5 elements are in containers that stack vertically. The style sheet then informs the DOM in the browser to stack as many containers horizontally as will fit in the viewport.

The result is simple and elegant, and the user can see it in action if loaded in a full-size browser on a desktop. The display for items starts three- or four-items wide on a typical display. If the user resizes the browser display to a narrower setting, the containers will be restacked into a small setting, such as two- or three-wide. If the user loads the same site on a smartphone, everything will appear in a single-column stack.


Mobile responsive design has become the presumptive solution for creating most apps. No serious company today is going to start a project from the ground up and use anything else, and that makes it incumbent upon web developers to understand the process.

Fortunately, getting good results is largely a matter of using the right tools and understanding the implications. Likewise, becoming good at mobile responsive design can open an app developer up to opportunities to use increased functionality. This can make a web app work significantly in more dynamic and compelling ways, and new developers should assume it is how their work will be done for the foreseeable future.

Did learning about what a mobile responsive app is interest you? The Web Application Design and Development program prepares students to become entry-level, full-stack web developers.

The Web Application Design and Development program focuses on the main programming languages, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, Python, SQL, and PHP.

This Web Application Design and Development diploma program at Hunter Business School covers both front-end and back-end web development topics, starting with client-side programming languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, then gradually advances to object oriented programming, Enterprise Java, and database design.

Through a series of hands-on projects, Web Application Design and Development training program students not only cultivate an understanding of computer coding and programming concepts, but also learn to work in a collaborative team environment, practice software development methodology skills, and prepare a sizable portfolio for their new career. This program also includes an externship in the field.

Career Services at Hunter Business School

Hunter Business School Career Services staff members help students jumpstart stimulating and gratifying careers in the web design field by helping the prospective employee make the transition to the workplace as quickly and easily as possible.

Placement assistance services include job interviewing skills, résumé preparation, cover and thank you letter writing, and career counseling and support. Graduates are always welcome back to Hunter for assistance from the Career Services department.

Contact us today to find out more about how to become a website developer on Long Island.