A Guide to Mobile App Development: Web vs. Native vs. Hybrid
We recently wrote A Guide to Mobile App Development: Does Your Brand Need an App? This is part two of the series, focusing on the three different approaches to mobile app development.
When looking into developing a mobile app, is it better to build a web app, native app or choose the hybrid route instead?
Depending on your business objectives and overall goals, this decision could make or break the success of your mobile strategy. When deciding to build your app as either web, native, or hybrid, there are variety of factors you need to consider. The purpose of this article is not to choose a winner. Instead, I compare the three approaches, outlining the advantages and disadvantages from the standpoint of a company looking to develop a mobile app.
Web browsers host web apps. How are web apps different from a website? A website typically provides users with a lot more information than is practical to display in a mobile site, whereas a web app condenses this information to improve functionality.
Web apps, however, do not need to be downloaded from app stores like mobile apps. Web apps load in browsers like Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. A web app also doesn’t take up storage on the user’s device.
People classify web apps as new technologies which blur the lines between web, native and hybrid apps. It’s difficult to distinguish which apps are web apps, which are hybrid apps, and which are websites built with a responsive design.
Sometimes, what might seem like a native app is downloaded from the app store, but that app may just be a webview (which is written in the native language) containing the URL to the web app. The majority of the code is handled outside of the native language. To some, that satisfies the requirements of a native application, and to others, it’s just another format for a web app. Web apps are essentially websites that look like native apps but instead of being installed on the home screen, the user creates a bookmark to that page.
How Do You Build A Web App?
If you choose to develop a web app, it can be straightforward and quick to build. However, they are often over simplified and don’t offer the same features native mobile apps provide.
Progressive Web Apps are hybrids of regular web pages and mobile apps. Web apps lack the functionality of native apps, such as sending push notifications, working offline, etc. Browsers and web apps, however, are becoming more advanced. Now, progressive web apps can leverage features similar to native apps. Here are a few of the functionalities:
- Send push messages
- Use touch gestures and your phone’s accelerometer
- Use some of the device’s hardware such as vibration
Despite improvements, a huge downside to progressive web apps is they can only run on Google Chrome. This means that iOS users cannot use this type of app. Considering that iOS users spend the most money on apps, this is a huge disadvantage.
- Easy to build
- Easy to maintain
- An Inexpensive option
- Build one app for all platforms – iOS, Android, etc. as long as it can run a browser
- Needs a browser to run. Users have to take another step to type in the URL of the app which amounts to a poor user experience
- Much slower than native apps
- Web apps are less interactive and intuitive than native apps
- No icon on mobile desktop as you would if it was downloaded from the app stores
- Cannot leverage device utilities
Native Mobile Apps
Native mobile apps are the most common type of app. They are built for specific platforms and are written in languages that the platform accepts, for example, Swift and Objective-C for iOS apps and Java for native Android apps. Native apps are also built using the specific Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for the given operating systems.
Both Apple and Google provide app developers with their own development tools, interface elements, and SDK. Most companies will invest in native mobile app development because of the myriad of benefits offered in comparison to other types of apps. Here are some of the main benefits:
- Native apps are very fast and responsive because they are built for that specific platform
- They have the best performance
- They are distributed in app stores
- Native allows developers to access the full feature set of their given platform with whatever performance optimizations the native system has
- Internet connection is not required, although it depends on the functionality
- Overall better user experience. To the user, the flow is more natural as they have specific UI standards for each platform
- Difficult languages to learn which means you need experienced developers
- More expensive
- Not the best option for very simple apps
Web apps can’t access device features which many view as a major disadvantage, however, on the contrary, mobile apps need to keep downloading updates to improve the accessibility, while web apps can update itself without any involvement of the user. Additionally, with native mobile app development, you get direct access to all native frameworks which otherwise may not be available.
Although the initial cost may be higher with a native app, you’ll end up saving a lot of time and money in the long run. By offering a great user experience, better performance, and leveraging the device features, you’re able to offer your users a more personalized experience. The combination of the native mobile app advantages will result in a higher conversion rates and will ultimately boost customer loyalty.
With native, as mentioned earlier, you have to build an app for each platform, for example, one for iOS and one for Android. However, developers have new technology to work with.
Two platforms, in particular, Xamarin and React Native, can be classified as another type of native app development.
Xamarin is created by Microsoft and it lets developers build one app that runs on many platforms in C#. With a C#-shared codebase, developers can use Xamarin tools to write native Android, iOS, and Windows apps with native user interfaces and share code across multiple platforms.
In mobile development, the term “native” would be defined as an ecosystem that Apple or Google, for example, chooses for developing apps for their operating systems. Xamarin or React Native technology is very complex and could be classified as either native or hybrid. Xamarin, in particular, can be considered both as a native and hybrid app development platform, as it builds native Android, iOS, and Windows development in C#, with either Visual Studio or Xamarin Studio. It also creates hybrid apps for multiple operating systems sharing C# codebase, IDE, language, and APIs. However, since there is another layer between your code and the platform, many people see it as hybrid.
Hybrid Mobile App
Hybrid app development can essentially do everything HTML5 does, except it also incorporates native app features. This is possible when you deploy a wrapper to act as a bridge between platforms to access the native features.
- Cheaper than a native app
- One app for all platforms using technology like Cordova
- No browser needed as opposed to a web app
- Have access to the device’s internal APIs, can access storage, camera, etc.
- Faster to develop than native apps because you have a single code base
- Slower than native apps
- More expensive than standard web apps because you have to work with the wrapper. Essentially you’re dependent on a third party platform
- Less interactive than native apps
- Customization will take you away from the hybrid model in which you may as well go native
With hybrid, you have to contend with issues that stem from both native systems and hybrid systems, which makes bug fixing more difficult. The performance is also a disadvantage because hybrid apps load in webview. The user experience is often sacrificed with a hybrid app as you cannot customize the app based on the platform.
Another disadvantage is that you can’t customize your app the way you would be able to do with a native app. In fact, the more customization you do, the more you’re steering toward a native solution so you might as well go native.
Additionally, the more customization you want within your hybrid app, the more expensive, and therefore a native solution will end up being more cost-effective. If you do choose to customize your hybrid app, you’ll end up spending a lot more money and time.
Which Approach Is Best?
The decision to build either a native, web, or hybrid mobile app should be based on your business objectives. Before jumping into development, you should consider the following factors:
- How fast you need the app
- The quality of the user experience you want your app to have
- The complexity of the features you need for your app to work
- Your Budget
Whichever approach you choose should, above all, be quick, responsive, and reliable. As users are demanding more from mobile experiences, it’s important to keep up with their changing demands. Whichever app you decide to build, remember the following:
- Your API infrastructure should have reliable and easy access to your content and services
- A mobile app is not a replication of your website but an extension of your brand
- Always get an understanding of your users’ expectations and behaviors and adapt as the market demands change
Finally, it’s important to work with an app development company that specializes in platform specific design and development.
Native apps outperform other apps because they are developed against both technical and user experience guidelines. Native apps can also easily access the inbuilt capabilities of the user’s device (e.g. contacts, GPS, camera, etc.). Whenever an organization plans to build a mobile app, we usually recommend native app development. It is best to stick with native and not sacrifice on the design elements that are unique to each platform. However, if you aren’t too concerned about the overall user experience and want to get something to market fast and cheap, a web app may be the way to go.
The debate around which type of app is the best is still very relevant today as the lines between the three approaches are becoming increasingly blurred. While the discussion to differentiate the three mobile apps continues, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t choose an approach for the technology, but instead, choose based on what you want your app to do. If you choose an approach that doesn’t allow your app to utilize device features, for example, then you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and money when you decide to add features.
The choice between native, web, or hybrid is dependent on a number of factors, including business needs, app requirements, developer skill, and timelines. The bottom line is that each type of app offers an entirely different experience and it’s important to know the strengths and weakness of each before jumping into development.
Have more questions about app development? Check out our blog, The 10 Most Common Mobile App Development Questions Answered or start a conversation today.
As a full service custom mobile app development company, Clearbridge Mobile handles the entire lifecycle of your product from Planning and Strategy, UX/UI Design, App Development, QA/User Acceptance Testing, to Technical Delivery. We use a unique agile development process that gives you control over scope, reduces your risk, and provides you predictable velocity. Start a conversation today to get started on your mobile project.