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Buy/Sell: Hybrid Mobile Applications

HybridMobileApps 06 06

Our Director of Partnerships and resident futurist takes the measure of the next now thing.

Mobile marketing has become a critical, non-negotiable piece of today’s marketing strategies. People rely on their mobile devices for nearly every activity imaginable, and any company that is not a part of this global trend is truly out of touch. Up to this point, there have been two main avenues to establishing a mobile presence: one was to create a fully native application written in a programming language used by the targeted platform, and the other was to stick with a traditional website and give up that native feel and look. In 2016, however, we have reached a point predicted by this 2013 Garner report – a widespread proliferation of hybrid mobile applications. With the imminent market domination of hybrid applications upon us, now is a great time to see what exactly is behind their popularity – and to investigate their drawbacks – so that we can get a clear, comprehensive picture of their role in the mobile market.

First, some brief background: native applications are built using a platform-specific programming language – Objective-C for iOS or Java for Android, for example – and can use all native functionalities of mobile devices and mobile operating systems, including the use of GPS, filesystem access, and common user interface elements. As a result, they usually have a consistent user experience, offer great performance, and are tied to the single environment they were developed for. Web applications, on the other hand, are stored on a remote server and run in the web browser of your choice. They are nearly ubiquitous (think email and online shopping) and offer robust cross-platform compatibility.

One could say that hybrid applications actually have more in common with web apps than native apps. The reason? Hybrid apps are actually just web apps wrapped in a native web view displayed via the smartphone’s native browser. What makes them so special is the particular framework with which they are built. A hybrid framework allows for the easy use of native functions of each mobile platform using cross-platform APIs. The Cordova framework, for example, requires nothing more than a knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript – tools which are very familiar to all web developers.

So now that we’ve set the stage, what’s so great about hybrid mobile apps?

Unified Development
The single biggest benefit that hybrid mobile apps offer is unified development. Companies can save a substantial amount of money that would otherwise have to be spent on developing and maintaining separate code bases for different mobile platforms. With a hybrid app, they can develop a single version and let their hybrid framework of choice do the heavy lifting, ensuring that everything will work flawlessly. And of course, the lower development costs can potentially mean greater revenue. Many small businesses wouldn’t be able to afford to target all major mobile platforms if there wasn’t the option to do so with a hybrid framework.

Fast Deployment
The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach necessitates the fast deployment of functional solutions in order to be the first to penetrate the market and gain a substantial competitive advantage. Those who need to have their app in the App Store or Google Play as fast as possible should seriously consider using hybrid applications.

Low-Level Access
Basic web applications are cut off from mobile operating systems and their built-in functionalities – although they are getting smarter every day, they still don’t come anywhere near native applications. Hybrid applications elegantly bridge the gap between the two approaches, providing all that extra functionality with minimal overhead. As a result, developers can realize a much wider range of ideas and fully capture the attention of their target audience.

Offline Support
Hybrid apps’ local storage can dramatically enhance the overall user experience by storing personal information and preferences for later use. Web applications, on the other hand, are critically limited by their lack of offline support. This may seem like a less important issue for people who live in urban areas, where high-speed internet access is ubiquitous, but customers from rural areas and even less developed countries could potentially be entirely cut off from the application.

Scaling
Hybrid applications are limited only by their underlying framework. Companies who partner with a good provider can instantly target all major platforms without any additional effort – and if the platform is popular enough, it can be expected that it will quickly add support for any new mobile operating systems and their respective incremental updates.

So far, so good, but it would be unfair to ignore the disadvantages of hybrid applications and paint a picture that doesn’t tell the whole story. As much as hybrid apps can help small and medium sized businesses reach wider audiences, they are also limited in several critical ways:

Performance
Hybrid mobile frameworks like Ionic, Cordova, Onsen, Kendo, and many others add an extra layer between the source code and the targeted mobile platform – the unsurprising result of which is a possible loss of performance. How noticeable a difference varies from application to application, but the fact that Facebook migrated their mobile application from HTML5 to native shows that there really can be a significant difference, at least for large-scale applications. As Mark Zuckerberg famously said at the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, “The biggest mistake we’ve made as a company is betting on HTML5 over native.”

Debugging
That extra layer also makes debugging a potential nightmare. Developers have to rely on the framework itself to play nicely with the targeted operating system and not introduce any new bugs. Since developers are not likely to have a deep knowledge of the targeted platform, figuring out the exact cause of an issue can be a lengthy affair.

Features
It’s hard to believe that the first iPhone was released less than ten years ago. We have come infinitely far since then, and the mobile industry is showing no signs of slowing down. Mobile operating systems continue to evolve at a much faster pace than their desktop counterparts, and many people now use smartphones and tablets as their primary computing devices. Unfortunately, It can take quite a bit of time for hybrid framework providers to implement new features – so companies who want to stand at the very apex of progress, using all the latest and greatest features and hardware capabilities, will likely experience difficulties if they attempt to achieve their goals using those frameworks.

As we bring this train into the station, here’s what we know: Hybrid mobile applications are extremely valuable in situations where fast development is the main priority, or where the high cost of targeting individual platforms with an individual native application would be prohibitive. On the other hand, major technology players and companies who need to stay on top of the latest tech developments are not likely to sacrifice performance and control. But with the speed of the technology ecosystem, it may be only a matter of time before hybrid application frameworks reach such a high level of maturity that all the downsides will simply disappear. We’ll be watching.

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