What Is a Third-Party App?

You use these apps on your smartphone and tablet all the time

Businessperson holding smartphone with apps and icons coming out of it

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A third-party app is an application created by a developer that isn't the manufacturer of the device the app runs on or the owner of the website that offers it. Third-party apps may be welcomed or forbidden by the device or website owner. For example, the Safari web browser app that comes on the iPhone is a native app made by Apple, but the App Store contains other web browser apps that Apple approved for use on the iPhone but did not develop. Those apps are third-party apps. Facebook permits some apps that it did not develop to function on its social media site. These are third-party apps.

Types of Third-Party Apps

Young businesswoman holding smartphone with apps and icons coming out of it
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There are several different situations where you may run into the term third-party app.

  • Apps created for official app stores by vendors other than Google (Google Play Store) or Apple (Apple App Store) and that follow the development criteria required by those app stores are third-party apps. An approved app by a developer for a service such as Facebook or Snapchat is considered a third-party app. If Facebook or Snapchat develops the app, then it is a native app.
  • Apps offered through unofficial third-party app stores or websites that are created by parties not affiliated with the device or operating system are also third-party apps. Use caution when downloading apps from any resource, particularly unofficial app stores or websites, to avoid malware.
  • An app that connects with another service (or its app) to either provide enhanced features or access profile information is a third-party app. An example of this is Quizzstar, a third-party quiz app that requires permission to access certain parts of a Facebook profile. This type of third-party app isn’t downloaded. Instead, the app is granted access to potentially sensitive information through its connection to the other service or app.

How Native Apps Differ From Third-Party Apps

Native apps are applications that are created and distributed by the device manufacturer or software creator. Some examples of native apps for the iPhone are iTunes, Message, and iBooks.

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

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, Google apps have a version that works on iPhones and iPads which are offered through the Apple App Store. Those are considered third-party apps on iOS devices.

Why Some Services Ban Third-Party Apps

Some services or applications ban the use of third-party apps for security reasons. Any time a third-party app accesses a profile or other information from an account, it presents a security risk. Information about the account or profile can be used to hack or duplicate the account. In the case of minors, it can expose photos and details about teens and kids to potentially harmful people.

In the Facebook quiz example, until the app permissions are changed in the Facebook account settings, the quiz app can access the profile details it was granted permission to access. If the permissions are not changed, the app has access to the Facebook profile, even after the user has quit using the app. It continues to gather and store details from the Facebook profile — details that may be a security risk.

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

Who Uses Third-Party Apps Anyway?

Third-party apps have a variety of productive, entertaining, and informative uses. There are third-party apps that manage several social media accounts at the same time, such as Hootsuite and Buffer. Other third-party apps manage bank accounts from a mobile device, count calories, or activate a home security camera.

Open the app menu screen on your smartphone and scroll through the downloaded apps. Do you have any games, social media, or shopping apps? Chances are good these are third-party apps.