What is a Real-Time App and Why Does it Matter?

3 min readNov 10, 2014

At PubNub, we provide a real-time data stream network for web, mobile, and IoT developers. After I say that, people often give me a “what the heck?” look. I originally wrote this post for my mother, but soon realized it provided a solid, very simple look at real-time technology, data streaming, and what a real-time app is.

At the core, real-time technology is the sending (publishing) and receiving (subscribing) of data “as it happens” in real life. Information or data is sent and presented in milliseconds. So what are some examples of a real-time app? Here’s a couple, with gifs!

What is a real time app?

When someone sends you a message in a chat app, and you receive that message on your phone, or you get a mobile push notification, that notification or message is received in ‘real time.’

text message received animated gif real-time applications

Receiving a mobile push notification in real time

When you watch your taxi moving on a map on your phone, and it smoothly moves along the street towards you, the map and taxi location is updating in ‘real time.’

taxi application map animated gif real-time applications

Taxi dispatch app GrabTaxi‘s real-time map

In a multiplayer game, when two players move their characters, player position is updated on both browsers in ‘real time’

multiplayer game animated gif real-time applications

Robot Onslaught by Thomas Hunter

When you click a button on your phone to change channels on your TV, that signal is sent in ‘real time.’

remote control animated gif real-time applications

Mote.io by Ian Jennings

When you’re walking to your house, and your lights turn on based on your geolocation, that signal is sent in ‘real time.’

home automation smart home animated gif real-time applications

Home automation app Revolv uses geolocation to trigger devices

Why does PubNub (and other data stream networks) exist?

The next question is, why does PubNub exist? To make real-time happen, devices are sending little tiny packets of data to one another in 1/10 second or less (which is considered real-time speed).

This doesn’t just magically happen. The app developer needs a ‘real-time’ data stream network to send those little tiny packets of data. Building a ‘real-time’ infrastructure yourself is hard, can get expensive, and is a large burden on development time. And once it’s built, you then have to maintain and scale that network.

This is often why many of our customers often go through a build vs buy stage, and soon realize that building it themselves isn’t plausible. Developers will first try to build real-time into their application with an open source protocol, but soon find it’s expensive, time consuming, and tough to scale.

Building a Real Time App on a Data Stream Network

So app developers use our data stream network, which we’ve built and globally scaled for the developer. This saves them time and money (they don’t have to build it themselves, we did it for them). Businesses like PubNub are known as many things: IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service), data streaming services, real-time data stream networks, real-time networks, etc.

The value to the developer is that they can use our infrastructure (our network) so that they can focus on their apps. The infrastructure is made up of multiple data centers (massive server rooms spread across the globe) that move (aka, ‘stream’) these small packets of data. This type of infrastructure is called a real-time Data Stream Network. And that’s what we do at PubNub.

Create a Real Time Application

Now that you understand what PubNub does, see some real world examples of real-time technology in use. Or if you want to get started right away, sign up for a free account and head over to our short Quick Start Tutorial to get going.

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