Should You Build a Hybrid Mobile App?

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When you’re developing a mobile application, one of the first decisions you need to make is whether it will be a native app, web app, or hybrid app. Each type of app has pros and cons, so which one is right for you? How you decide depends on a few things: budget, timeline, user experience, future maintenance, and the skills of your developer.

Because hybrid mobile apps fall in the middle of the spectrum of native apps and web apps, they share some properties of both, giving this middle-of-the-road approach a few clear advantages. Mobile development is always changing, and hybrid development is constantly improving as well, making it an increasingly popular option. In this article, we’ll go over some of the pros and cons of hybrid apps, with a look at a few of the most popular technologies used to develop them.

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WHAT IS A HYBRID APPLICATION?

hybrid mobile apps vs native mobile apps

 

A hybrid app is essentially a web app, but it’s given a lightweight native app “container” that allows it to leverage certain native platform features and device hardware (e.g., a device’s camera, calendar, push notifications, and pinch and spread functionality) that a web application cannot access. Like applications on the web, hybrid apps are built with commonly used front-end development technologies and languages like JavaScript, HTML5, and CSS, giving them a cross-platform functionality.

Hybrid apps are available via app stores, can access hardware on your phone, and are installed on your device, just like a native app. But how do they stack up against native and web apps, and what are their benefits?

THE PROS & CONS OF HYBRID APPS

The biggest draw? You only need to build one version of your app. There’s no need to design, develop, and maintain separate versions of your app to run on one platform or another, but you’ll still get an app that delivers a “native feel” for users. Building and maintaining separate versions of your native app can require two or three times the work, and multiple developers. For example, a company like Facebook, which has native apps for both iOS and Android, employs hundreds of designers and developers on both its iOS and its Android teams. Tack on frequent updates to operating systems, and maintenance becomes more complicated, and ongoing.

Also, a hybrid app lets developers leverage skills they already have common front-end technology like HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. Because most hybrid apps are built with basic front-end technology, they don’t require a separate skill set with the platform-specific programming languages, like Apple’s Objective-C, Swift, and Xcode; or separate integrated development environments (IDEs) and software development kits (SDKs)—the tools used to create native apps. Additionally, if you find a highly skilled front-end developer who’s able to maximize the potential of languages like HTML5 and JavaScript, the resulting hybrid apps can be truly beautiful, functional hybrid apps that can rival a native app’s functionality.

You do sacrifice some benefits with this cross-platform flexibility and ease of development, however. Native apps are optimized for a single platform, and that specificity means they’ll look and perform best on that particular platform or device–especially if the app is data-heavy, needs to be refreshed frequently, or if it uses lots of multimedia or rich graphics. Additionally, because native apps are installed directly on the device, they have unfettered access to the device’s hardware and APIs. All of this gives native apps an advantage when it comes to user experience, but remember: if a hybrid app is exceptionally well built, it should be difficult to tell the difference between it and a native version.

Note: Keep in mind your app’s complexity if you’re considering going hybrid: it’s often easier for simpler hybrid apps that primarily involve content to measure up to native app performance. Also, games are notoriously more difficult in a hybrid app; however, tools like HTML5’s Canvashave improved things a bit.

How are hybrid apps built?

The difference in hybrid vs. native boils down to how the app is run once it’s installed on the phone. A native app is built to target a specific mobile device and operating system: iOS for Apple devices, Android-powered devices, and so on. It runs on that platform, and that platform only. A web app, on the other hand, runs on a device’s browser. But a hybrid app works a little bit differently, borrowing from both: it’s installed on a device, like a native app, but run in a WebView–a browser-like component in the native container that allows the app to access those aspects of a phone that make it a great, engaging app: the camera, speaker, GPS, and more. The code a developer writes in the hybrid framework or platform will target the device’s WebView.

How can a hybrid app access a device’s hardware? Through plugins, which are written in native code and allow a hybrid app to access a device’s capabilities through APIs.

Popular tools for building hybrid apps

While native iOS apps and Android apps are ideal because they’re optimized for each platform, hybrid mobile app technology is evolving, making it a more viable–and time- and cost-efficient–option for mobile app development. Hybrid apps are able to feel closer to a native app experience thanks to high-powered frameworks that have solved for some of hybrid apps’ limitations. Opt for one of these technologies–and a pro who knows how to maximize its potential–and you’ll end up with a better quality hybrid app, and way less headaches along the way.

Hybrid mobile app frameworks make quick work of programming apps, just like traditional web application programming frameworks. They contain libraries of code, APIs, and other features to make coding your app faster and easier. There are web-based frameworks, which use front-end technology like HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, and cross-platform frameworks, which take a programming language and actually convert the code into native code for the device.

Note: Even though hybrid apps let developers use skills they already have, there can be tricky aspects to working with the platform or framework you choose, as well as unique features of each that require a little know-how to make the most of. You’ll want to make sure your hybrid app developer has experience with that particular tool’s runtime, WebView, plugins, and code features.

Some popular web-based hybrid app frameworks include:

  • PhoneGap/Apache Cordova: a web-based framework and development platform that’s packed with JavaScript APIs, allowing your hybrid app to access device-level hardware APIs like the camera, vibration, touch screen, and more.
  • Ionic framework—another free, open-source web-based framework with the added benefit of Bootstrap 3 and AngularJS components. It’s designed strictly for hybrid app development, uses HTML, CSS and JavaScript, has plenty of third-party extensions and plugins, and is both fast and easy to learn, vs. a more complex framework like jQuery Mobile. Just install the Node.js development environment and you’re good to go.
  • Sencha Touch 2:  a powerful, enterprise-level platform that uses HTML5 and JavaScript and the ExtJS framework to build very native-like hybrid apps. A responsive UI is the cornerstone of this robust, object-oriented MVC-style framework.

The hybrid app alternative: cross-platform native apps

There’s another way to build apps that can run on multiple platforms without employing the web application in a native wrapper approach of hybrid apps: cross-platform development technology. These platforms allow a developer to write a single, native source code for an app, then that code is compiled to run natively on other platforms. Two popular cross-platform development tools include the Appcelerator Titanium IDE, a JavaScript-based framework that’s one of the best in the market, and Xamarin, a cross-platform software that uses a single C# code base along with its hybrid framework, PortableRazor. Learn more about these and other cross-platform tools in our Using Cross-Platform Technology to Build Flexible, Functional Mobile Apps.

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Carey Wodehouse

by - Freelance Content Marketer and Writer

Carey Wodehouse is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Richmond, VA who’s worked for clients ranging from online retailers and global market research… more