There has been an ongoing fierce debate, with legitimate pros and cons on either side, as to whether mobile app developers should go native or use a hybrid approach that can accommodate the many different mobile platforms they want to target. Analyst and consulting firm Gartner predicts that more than 50 percent of mobile apps deployed by 2016 will be hybrid. There are several factors to consider when deciding a native vs. hybrid approach, but the most important are related to time to market and development costs.
Considerations key to ROI
A native app is specifically designed to run optimally on a device’s operating system. The hybrid approach combines the portability of the emerging standard HTML5 Web apps with a native container that facilitates access to native device features and thus supports multiple mobile devices.
Based on our experience, the following six considerations are key factors in achieving the anticipated return on investment from developing a mobile app.
Development speed and cost
Hybrid apps are faster to develop. Only a portion of native code has to be re-written for different kinds of devices. The vast majority of development goes into the Web component, which is used across all devices, reducing the time it takes to build the app (and thus the development cost). These are Web apps built into a native mobile container or framework.
Building a hybrid mobile application requires maintaining a single code base for the different platforms. Native apps require specific developments for each platform, which increases costs and duration.
Because hybrid apps are based on Web technologies it is easier to find developers to build them and maintain them. Globally, it is difficult in today’s heated mobile app development market to find developers experienced with iOS and Android. Due to the Web’s historical reality, the great majority of developers come with strong knowledge of Web technologies. That history also is true for other mobile platforms like BlackBerry and Windows 8.
Hybrid apps are a good choice for certain types of requirements. Productivity apps are the most common applications built using HTML5 (54 percent), followed by utility (38 percent).
However, HTML5 alone is not a silver bullet. There are other considerations besides development speed and cost that are usually not part of the decision process when choosing the technology to develop mobile apps with. They include user experience, data persistence, immature tooling and cross-platform support.
Another drawback is when there is a need for animations or special user interface (UI) treatments, like spinners or custom UIs that require elements to move around the screen. HTML5 is lacking in this area. In fact, this is one of the reasons LinkedIn dropped HTML5 and went native for its mobile app.
The look and feel of the platform is also a factor. One of the benefits of hybrid apps is that developers only have to build once; this is also true for the UI, meaning that the app will look the same across all platforms. Some users expect the apps to look like the other apps they already have. There are some common elements and guidelines that are expected from an app on a specific platform, which cannot be met by hybrid apps.
Data storage plays an important role with mobile apps. It is used to store user preferences and app data that will enable offline use of the application. Hybrid apps use HTML5 storage mechanisms, which are usually restricted to a few megabytes depending on the platform support and implementation of the HTML5 standard. Data-intensive mobile apps are not suitable for a hybrid approach, as there can be significant investment in the effort to make it work successfully.
As far as user interfaces are concerned, most people very likely won’t notice a huge difference from a native app, particularly if there isn’t a significant interactive component in the app.
The debate likely will continue regarding the superiority of native mobile app development over a hybrid approach while the staggering growth of mobile app development and deployment continues in parallel. Apple’s app store boasts over 900,000 apps; Android plays catch-up at 750,000. How will the continued release of apps on both platforms affect the native vs. hybrid debate? And, will the relatively small number of Windows Phone apps (less than 150,000) factor in? Time will tell.
Erick Vargas is a software architect at the nearshore software engineering services company Avantica Technologies. He has over 10 years of experience in software development and works with venture-backed startups and the Software 500, focusing on Web, cloud and mobile technologies. Currently he is involved in projects that require high collaboration with customers in product and strategy definition. He also leads mobile hybrid development efforts and assessments, collaborating closely to help define customers’ mobile strategy.