What is a Third-Party App?

On a smartphone or tablet? You’re probably using a third-party app right now.

Young businesswoman holding smartphone with apps and icons coming out of it
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The simplest definition of a third-party app is an application created by a vendor (company or individual) that is different than the manufacturer of the device and/or its operating system. Third-party apps are sometimes referred to as developer apps because many are created by independent developers or app development companies.

What Are Third-Party Apps?

The topic of third-party apps can be confusing because there are three different situations where the term may be used. Each situation creates a slightly different meaning of the term third

  1. Third-party apps created for official app stores by vendors other than Google (Google Play Store) or Apple (Apple’s App Store) and follow development criteria required by those app stores. In this situation, an app for a service, such as Facebook or Snapchat, could be considered a third-party app.
  2. Apps offered through unofficial third-party app stores or websites. These app stores are created by third parties not affiliated with the device or operating system and all of the apps provided are third-party apps. Use caution whenever downloading apps from any resource, particularly "unofficial" app stores or websites to avoid malware.
  3. An app that connects with another service (or its app) to either provide enhanced features or access profile information. An example of this would be Quizzstar, a third-party quiz app that requires permission to access certain parts of your Facebook profile to allow you to use it. This type of third-party app isn’t necessarily downloaded but is granted access to potentially sensitive information through its connection to the other service/app.

    How Native Apps are Different from Third-Party Apps

    When discussing third-party apps, the term native apps may come up. Native apps are applications that are created and distributed by the device manufacturer or software creator. Some examples of native apps for iPhone would be iTunes, iMessage, and iBooks.

    What makes these apps native is that the apps are created by a specific manufacturer for that manufacturer's devices. For example, when Apple creates an app for an Apple device – such as an iPhone – it is termed a native app. For Android devices, because Google is the creator of the Android mobile operating system, examples of native apps could include the mobile version of any of the Google apps, such as Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Chrome.

    An important thing to note is that just because an app is a native app for one type of device, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a version of that app available for other types of devices. For example, most Google apps have a version that works on iPhones and iPads offered through Apple’s App Store.

    Why Some Services Ban Third-Party Apps

    Some services or applications ban the use of third-party apps. One such example of a service that has banned third-party apps is Snapchat. Why do some services ban third-party apps? In a word, security. Anytime a third-party app is accessing your profile or other information from your account, it presents a security risk. Information about your account or profile can be used to hack or duplicate your account, or for minors, can expose photos and details about teens and kids to potentially harmful people.

    In our Facebook quiz example above, until you go into your Facebook account settings and change the permissions, that quiz app will still be able to access the profile details you granted it permission to access. Long after you’ve forgotten about the funny quiz that said your spirit animal was a guinea pig, that app can still gather and store details from your profile – details that may be a security risk for your Facebook account.

    To be clear, using third-party apps is not illegal. However, if the terms of use for a service or application states that other third-party apps are not allowed, attempting to use one to connect to that service could result in your account being locked or deactivated.

    Who Uses Third-Party Apps Anyway?

    Not all third-party apps are bad. In fact, many are very useful. An example of useful third-party apps are apps that help manage several social media accounts at the same time, such as Hootsuite or Buffer, which saves time for small businesses who use social media to share about local events or specials.

    Who else uses third-party apps? Chances are, you do. Open your app menu screen and scroll through your downloaded apps. Do you have any game apps, music apps, or shopping apps provided by companies other than the one who manufactured your device or its operating system? All of these are technically third-party apps.