Pros and Cons of Hybrid & Native App Development

Back in 2012 Mark Zuckerberg admitted to relying too much on HTML5. As a result Facebook changed its mobile strategy from building a Hybrid experience and went Native. Since then though the debate between Hybrid vs Native app development has been hotly debated. While some mobile developers are vehemently opposed to developing in HTML5, others will say that the decision to go Hybrid or Native should only take five minutes—five minutes, really?

At the end of the day it’s natural for people to have opinions. Without strong opinions your business strategy will lack the necessary momentum for effective implementation. That being said some opinions are more relevant than others and in this regard I think that the debate over Hybrid vs. Native development (in its current state) is dead. Here’s why:

Hybrid App Development

By using an SDK (software development kit) developers can utilize web code to be deployed across multiple OS platforms. Essentially this option is a cheaper faster solution if you need to get your app developed and have it on both Android and iOS at the same time.

Pros and Cons

Hybrid apps are part native and part HTML5. Like native apps, they are installed on a device and live in an app store. But unlike native apps, they are built using HTML5 approaches and are subsequently placed in a ‘wrapper’ that allows for distribution and use on iOS or Android.

It is a ‘Write Once, Run Anywhere’ strategy, similar to what made Java such a dominant force many years back. This results in a cross-platform, consistent user interface that works well on most devices. The Netflix app is one example of a hybrid app which runs the same code base on all platforms.

According to Ken Dulaney, VP and a distinguished analyst at Gartner, enterprises now are increasingly finding the need to support multiple platforms. For hybrid apps only a small portion of code needs to be re-implemented for different platforms. Gartner predicted last year that by 2016 more than 50 % of the apps deployed will be developed with a hybrid approach.

A native app, on the downside, can be used only for its specific platform. This thereby restricts their potential audience reach (which is crucial for businesses to achieve mobile ROI). For example, an iPhone can never host Android apps and vice versa. So developing an iPhone app when 70% of mobile traffic stems from Android devices, is a surefire way to fail at mobile.

Benefits of Hybrid

Save Time and Money

Consider what your business wants to accomplish with the launching of a mobile app. You might want to get a new product in front of prospective customers in short order, making the buying experience easy and simple for new customers. In that respect, a hybrid app would at least help kick-start your revenue-generating goals.

Even if down the road you find that your competitors have launched an app that makes a user’s experience faster and easier using native technology, you can consider your hybrid app as a bridge towards building a better user experience in the future. Take inventory of what works, what needs improvement, and begin the development of a native app to take the place of your hybrid app. By developing in stages you’ll be able to get your product line in front of customers quickly, which will often result in added revenue.

Write Once, Use Anywhere

Because hybrid apps are written with HTML5 and Javascript, developers have to make fewer tweaks to the coding to work on multiple platforms, making it a true “write once, use anywhere” solution.

This means the app will work on an iPhone or Android phone, tablet or laptop, regardless of the operating system. Hybrid apps can do this because they automatically detect and change the user interface for each platform, and then adjust according to browser, screen size and device orientation.

This allows users to have as close to a native experience as possible without being entirely native—which, of course, takes more money and time to develop.

Updates Made Easy

Sometimes it’s annoying when you have to literally upload a new version of an app when even the smallest of changes are made to it. Fortunately, hybrid apps allow content to be updated as much as necessary, and tweaks and improvements can be made whenever necessary without interrupting the experience of the user.

In fact, even if an internet connection is lost on a device, the app will continue to work. If updates are made during the time a device is disconnected, they are automatically made when a connection is reestablished. Any feature that adds flexibility to a user’s experience can result in customer retention and growth. Or, if the app is being used by a mobile employee, being able to access the app offline adds to efficiency.

Granted, hybrid apps are not for every business. Those who can’t afford the least bit of lag in app performance—or who need users to experience the “wow” factor of a premium app that’s been built for a specific platform—would most likely be better off spending their time and money on a native app.

However, if the three reasons above give you the confidence that a hybrid app can work in tandem with your business goals, then you’ve found a fit that’s at least exploring further.

Native App Development

Native app development is platform specific meaning that you have to choose whether you want to develop in iOS or Android (or pay two teams to do both at the same time). The end result is typically an app with a better user experience at the price of taking longer to develop with more overhead costs.

Pros and the Cons

Due to native apps having to be built with the specific development tools and languages for each respective platform, developers that are well versed in either iOS or Android development are the best for the job. Developers are able to take full advantage of all the unique device features, such as the camera, accelerometer, compass, GPS or even the iPhone 6’s fingerprint sensor.

In an article published on Mashable, iOS engineer Eric Miller says that native apps have the benefit of familiarity as developers already have a degree of familiarity with the respective software development kits. iOS developers and Android developers know how the code will function and run efficiently on the targeted platform.

If one wants to cover a larger audience across all platforms, separate native apps for each device will be required, but this approach is much more expensive. Going native involves a larger upfront investment in infrastructure, developers and technology as compared to hybrid apps.

With hybrid development, one cannot take advantage of the device specific features and themes. Reproducing those features with a hybrid approach becomes much trickier.

Benefits of Native

The debate between HTML5 and native apps is similar to the debate between off-the-shelf and custom software. Both have their ideal use cases, and both have their caveats to be aware of. But the debate between the two is often polarized and lacks substantive direction or guidance for businesses.

Yet one data point that may clear up the debate rests with what actual developers prefer. Out of all the apps developed for mobile, 67% have been built on native platforms with just 17% built with HTML5. Developers by far prefer building native mobile apps.

Here are the native programming languages mobile developers rely on:

  • Java for Android
  • C/Objective C for iOS
  • C# for Windows
  • Java for Blackberry

Users also spend about 87% of their total time on mobile devices interacting with native apps. One main reason for this statistic can rest in the familiar UI design of native apps. Native apps usually mimic the design aesthetic and user experience of either the Android, iOS or Windows 8 operating system.

Although native apps benefit from superior performance, it requires a substantially higher investment of time, talent and resources. Finding developers that are well versed in building apps for leading mobile platforms is admittedly harder than finding those that are proficient in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Native also has limitations in terms of market reach. Building an app specifically for iOS means that Android users can never access it. Given that Android has an 80% market share worldwide, this will be an issue. Especially if a brand’s audience uses a variety of devices.

Prior to deciding on a development method, it is crucial to assess the audience. Determine which segment of users are using specific device types and decide from there.

Questions to Consider

Is UX Critical?

Nobody wants to engage with a bad user experience, however, is pouring time and resource into building the coolest app on the block really going to impact your business? The answer is: yes…unless it doesn’t.

Here’s where you have to create an internal audit to determine what functions are really critical to making your app successful. Do you need access to applications that are specific to either iOS or Android? For example, both platforms come with a different GPS built directly into the hardware. If location targeting were a crucial function to providing a worthy user experience for your customers, you’d probably be better off considering the Native Development route.

Likewise, if your app is a game that requires integration with specific API’s, Native would be the way to go as well. While Hybrid can be a great solution for deploying code across multiple platforms quickly and easily, the user experience is almost always more organic with Native development.

The flip side of this, of course, is that not everyone needs to create the most amazing user experience possible while you should always be putting an emphasis on UX design, many banking and news media apps are created using Hybrid development. Why? Because these types of organizations tend to update their content regularly and don’t require seamless integration to platform specific functions.

One of the best things about developing a Hybrid app is that all updates are done directly through the web—meaning that you won’t have to annoy your users by notifying them with updates all the time.

The bottom line here is this: if giving users access to your content is a big priority—and that content doesn’t change dramatically whether you’re developing for Android or iOS—then Hybrid can become a much more actionable solution for your business due it’s inherent agility.

Budget and Timeline?

If you have an unlimited budget and all the time in the world, I’d say go Native all day every day. You really have nothing to lose by building an immaculate user experience into your app—well, nothing to lose besides time and money.

There’s no getting around the fact that Hybrid development costs are usually reasonable and that Native development costs are more often than not, greatly expensive. That being said, cost and time should be one of the major factors influencing your decision to build with one option or the other.

To answer which solution suits you better you must take a top down view to determine whether building a top not notch user experience trumps taking a minimum viable approach. First and foremost you should calculate how much ground you’re losing by not getting your app in front of users right away.

While rushing delivery on your app is almost never preferable to building a quality product that can scale over time, the amount of time it takes to get your app to market can hold serious consequences for your business. For proof of this look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s choice to develop in HTML5 initially.

While Hybrid didn’t work for Facebook in the long run, the social giant did add value to their company by being quick to the draw in testing the capabilities of Hybrid app development and getting their mobile app in front of users in a hurry—and the same approach can potentially work for your company as well.

For example, if your biggest value proposition as a company is offering a disruptive product, but you still need to remain lean as you scale, Hybrid app development can be a great testing ground for ideas and development, while allowing you to grow in a less expensive environment.

On the other side of this argument of course, maybe the app your making is the product, in one sense or another. If that’s the case then Native development is the clear winner over Hybrid because of the value proposition you’re looking to offer consumers. Take Slack for example. As a disruptive Enterprise communication tool that relies so heavily on its functionality it really only made sense to develop in Native.

When developed correctly, an app can provide a sense of elegance and utility. With the abundance of platforms and devices available in the mobile market now, significant strategy is needed to outline a successful approach. Developers can choose from two different mobile application development approaches, hybrid apps and native apps, each with its own set of pros and cons.

For the uninitiated, native apps are built for and installed on specific platforms using platform-specific software development kits (SDKs). Examples are apps for Apple’s iPhone and iPad that are designed to run only on Apple products. Hybrid apps on the other hand, combine technologies from native apps and HTML5 (a markup language used to structure content on the web) making it accessible on a variety of device types.

The proliferation of mobile devices has sparked off a debate over the best approach for developing mobile apps. Brands looking to develop mobile apps should understand that there are pros and cons involved with either of the two approaches.

Which Is More Effective?

It is evident that both approaches have certain drawbacks and respective benefits. So one must not view the choice as a black-and-white decision. Deciding between the two approaches depends on many factors such as the type of application being built, development talent and resources, allotted budget, and so on.

If it is a productivity, utility or enterprise app, hybrid apps are usually the way to go. If the app in question involves gaming, photos, or videos then building a native app makes sense. Native development optimizes the performance of media and graphic capabilities since developers can access device specific features.

The bottom line is that there are many factors that comprise an enterprise’s mobility strategy and there is no “one-size fits all” approach. Developers lately have been sidestepping this debate and are instead going for the approach that makes the most sense in that particular implementation or environment.

Figuring out which type of mobile app to develop—native, hybrid, or web-based—doesn’t have to be a complicated decision. You should ultimately go with the one that makes the most business sense and contributes to your bottom line. That could come in the way of added agility and efficiency, savings, or revenue.

While each type of mobile development offers its own unique solution, this article’s focus will rest squarely on hybrid mobile apps; why they make sense, and what goals a business can expect them to help achieve. This information should give you a very good idea whether a hybrid solution will meet your specific needs.

Offering up a definition of what a hybrid app is would probably a good place to start, but how an app is developed is far less important than what it can do for you. So, here’s the simplified version: a Hybrid app is a web-based application that uses a mix of native technology and code written in HTML5 and JavaScript to give users—across multiple platforms—access to device-specific features such as a GPS, camera or iPhone fingerprint login.

A general rule of thumb is that if your app will be used to present content that requires frequent updating (news), access and management of accounts (banking/utilities), or productivity apps for use by enterprises (CRM), then hybrid apps are a good option. On the other hand, if an app requires location targeting, animation, videos, or photos—which almost always means a lot of memory—a native app is typically going to give users a better experience.

How to Choose

There is no doubt that mobile is here to stay when it comes to business strategies. Over 50% of American adults own a smartphone and app stores have witnessed over 50 billion of downloads of 1 million apps and counting.

High profile apps are even serving as the foundation for billion dollar companies (ie. Instagram, Waze, and Snapchat). While there is much enthusiasm towards mobile the first choice a brand or individual must make prior to development is the choice between HTML5 or Native.

By evaluating the intended audience, necessary functional features, available resources and budgets, a brand can make the correct strategic decision between the two leading mobile app development methodologies.

and less about which method is the most advanced from a technical perspective. This is what many passionate app developers don’t understand, and while I respect their evangelism, my stance (and the one that probably matters most to your business) is that a mobile app should make a business more agile and more profitable—bottom line.

In that regard both Hybrid and Native apps offer unique solutions that your business can definitely be taking advantage of. But whether your business should go the Native route or choose to develop in HTML5 (AKA Hybrid) should rely totally on goals that are pertinent to your growth.

This is to say that having the goal of creating a best in class app is great, but ask yourself: will spending additional time and investment on flawless UX design and pouring development money into one or both of the two main OS systems (Android and iOS) really help your business generate revenue? The short answer to this is simple: it depends on what your business is, and what you expect from a mobile app.