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No matter the business that one may be in, mobile apps are becoming an increasingly important part of capturing and maintaining market share. With so many companies seeking to develop mobile apps, a hot topic over the last few years has been whether it is best to go with a native app, a browser-based web app or a hybrid that uses features of both.
The adoption of mobile devices for internet browsing has been explosive. In 2017, mobile internet users surpassed those using PCs for the first time. Today, more than 52 percent of all internet traffic goes through mobile devices. It is estimated that as many as 6 billion people currently have mobile devices. And many of those have internet capabilities.
All this points to the fact that the need for robust mobile apps is not going away any time soon. For companies that need to develop cutting-edge mobile apps in order to retain existing customers and attract new ones, making the right decision regarding hybrid versus native architecture will have both short-term and long-term implications.
Mobile app development native vs hybrid
A native app is a mobile application that runs on the mobile device itself and uses its operating system. On the other hand, a hybrid app, sometimes also known as a progressive web application, is a program that mostly runs off of a web server but that has some of the same functionality of native apps. A pure web app is a program that runs only in a web browser and usually cannot access device-specific features, such as cameras, microphones or GPS.
Because hybrid web apps can, to some extent, directly compete with native apps, the debates as to what kind of architecture to use generally focuses on hybrids versus native apps, without pure web apps playing a major role.
In the mobile app development native vs hybrid debate, it is important that the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach are well understood.
Hybrid app strengths and weaknesses
Hybrid apps offer the following strengths:
They don’t need to be rewritten in different computer languages for each platform on which they will be deployed.
- Unlike web apps, they don’t need to use a web browser.
- They offer some of the same functionality as native apps, which can include access to device hardware like cameras and microphones.
- Their ability to be deployed across platforms in a single programming languages means far easier maintenance and updates.
- They can be developed and brought to market much faster.
- Their cost of development and ongoing costs are typically much cheaper.
Those pursuing hybrid mobile app development should also consider this approach’s inherent weaknesses, which include:
- A less intuitive user interface that will usually be designed in a generic way that enables cross-platform compatibility.
- A notably slower and more interruption-prone user experience.
- Being tied into using a third-party app wrapper that may increase bugginess.
- Difficult customizability, with an increasing need for customization making a hybrid architecture proportionately less attractive.
The strengths of native apps
Native app development tends to have strengths that fill in the void left by hybrid development. The strengths of native app development include the following:
- Native apps adhere to the style and user interface of the device’s operating system, providing a much more intuitive user experience.
- Native apps universally have superior performance, often by huge margins.
- Apps are highly visible due to being distributed through app stores.
- Native apps have full access to the device’s hardware and operating system, allowing the app to easily use cameras, microphones and other hardware functions.
- Native apps tend to provide an all-around better user experience, including fewer interruptions and constant access to all application features, which may not be present in hybrid apps when connectivity is unavailable.
- Native apps must comply with the API and style guide of the native operating system, significantly enhancing the user experience.
Drawbacks of native apps
Despite their strong advantages, native apps do have a number of built-in drawbacks. These include:
- Higher overall development cost, including ongoing maintenance costs that can be significantly higher than for hybrid apps due to the need to maintain two or more source codes in completely unrelated languages.
- The need to hire expert programmers in the often-difficult languages required, such as Objective-C, Swift, Java or Kotlin.
- Longer overall times to market.
In mobile app development native vs hybrid, which one makes the most sense?
Now that we’ve seen a few of the pluses and minuses of each approach, it’s time to explore, in depth, the contexts in which it would be more beneficial to go with one option versus the other.
Hybrid apps are often the on-paper winner, but take that conclusion with a grain of salt
On first look, the advantages of going with a hybrid app development approach appears to be considerable. Once an opportunity to develop an app has been identified by the business in question, even companies with no in-house IT expertise can develop simple hybrid apps quickly. In some cases, it may be possible to bring a workable solution to market in a matter of weeks.
Not only can hybrid apps offer attractive incentives for businesses where being a first mover in a given market is of high importance, but going with a hybrid approach can also save big money on development costs. Even small businesses that are looking to develop a robust and full-featured app can expect to pay well into the five-figure range for a completed product. For larger companies or more ambitious projects, that figure can soar as high as $1,000,000 or more.
The bottom line is that hybrid apps may be able to save a company big money, at least on first-order costs like development and ongoing maintenance. For larger projects, going with a hybrid solution might save hundreds of thousands of dollars. But as we’ll see, these up-front savings are far from the whole picture.
Even those of us who haven’t crossed over from Android to iPhones or vice versa have almost all had the unpleasant experience of going from a PC to an Apple product or Apple to PC. The result is usually the same: a complete inability to even perform basic commands on the unfamiliar platform. If the typical windows user can’t even open a Safari browser without 10 minutes of instruction, how does that bode for their ability to open a business-specific app that almost certainly will have functions and features that the user has never before encountered?
Ultimately, the utility of the hybrid app approach’s main selling point, writing a single source code to be used across all platforms, is automatically reduced by the simple fact that every design feature will necessarily be a Sisyphean compromise between optimizing for Android and Apple devices. In practice, this makes designing the app itself much more difficult. It also means that rather than custom designing the app for one set of users in a way that is perfectly intuitive and easy for them to use, instead, the app will be designed in a way that Android, Windows Mobile and iPhone customers all find equally frustrating and counterintuitive to navigate.
But as seriously detrimental as an unfamiliar or counterintuitive user interface can be to user experience, the starkest problem faced by developers who use a hybrid app approach comes from performance problems. It may be helpful to digress a bit on the topic of user experience in general and performance in particular to appreciate exactly how important these issues have become to modern mobile users.
User experience is king
A number of studies have confirmed that around 80 percent of users will abandon an app that doesn’t properly work on the first or second try. One study found that only 16 percent of users will come back on a third try to use an app that didn’t initially function.
Additionally, the standards that mobile app users have when it comes to ongoing usability are extremely high. And it’s not terribly hard to see why. Mobile devices have almost become extensions of people’s bodies. Most smartphone users literally cannot live normally without having their phones in their possession at all times. Because mobile devices have become the indispensable accessory for a huge swath of modern consumers, user expectations for how phones work are on par with other indispensable accoutrements of modern life.
Most people would find it totally unacceptable to live in a place where the electricity went out even 10 percent of the time or where the refrigerator or heat didn’t work 20 percent of the time. Likewise, the majority of mobile-device users generally regard any service interruption of their business- or life-critical applications to be completely intolerable.
Because expectations are so high, user-experience and user-interface considerations will often trump all others. A recent poll indicated that 84 percent of businesses that had long-term experience in mobile app development identified user experience as being either extremely important or quite important. Only 1 percent of the businesses surveyed said that user experience was not important at all.
For businesses that may be new to the app-development game, the forgoing means that extreme precautions should be taken so that the importance of user experience is not underestimated and an acceptable product is ultimately delivered. It is easy enough to develop a functional hybrid app that may seem perfectly fine to the people developing it. But once it is released into the wild, the stark realities of business competition will often mean that even a slightly underperforming app will quickly be abandoned to better-performing competition.
Native apps always deliver a strong performance edge
To put things bluntly, when it comes to mobile-app development, businesses are usually going to be faced with the following choice: Do it cheap or do it right. There are a few very specific instances where going with a hybrid app is still arguably the best choice. But overall, it is important to understand that when it comes to user experience there really is no competition. Native apps win every time.
The problem isn’t just that hybrid-app technology isn’t quite there yet. A number of famous computer scientists are on record stating that it simply isn’t possible for hybrid technology to ever reach the quality of speed and features of native apps. This boils down to simple physics; native apps make use of local processing power rather than sending out server calls across vast networks and distances to far-away processors that may, at any time, be overloaded with a surfeit of users.
Another problem that is potentially even starker is the fact that hybrid apps are platform agnostic. Now, you might be wondering why one of hybrid apps’ greatest strengths, the ability to develop a single source code in an easy programming language, is now being named as a prime detraction. The reason is that Android and iPhone interfaces and style guides are so radically different from each other that bridging the gap between them is effectively impossible.
This will leave programmers playing a game of design whack-a-mole, constantly addressing design problems on one platform only to see the solutions exacerbate problems on the other. And the endless bad compromises that are the result of this process will only have the effect of frustrating and ultimately alienating users.
Native apps, on the other hand, can be custom built to fit the style and features of a given platform’s user interface. To app-world uninitiated, this may sound like an overblown concern. But study after study has shown that one of the most important aspects of user experience is the familiarity of an app’s functionality to inexperienced users.
When you think about it, this point is easy to see. Who hasn’t been frustrated to the point of shouting when they needed to complete a simple task but could not figure out the basic operation of an app that promised a quick solution? How many truly platform-agnostic programs have you really become an expert at? Only the tiniest fraction of users have the iron determination to become experts at platform-agnostic programs with complex and unfamiliar interfaces. This is why, for instance, an open-source program like Blender, which is nearly as powerful as the most expensive professional animation suites, is much less popular among everyday consumers than far more expensive and less capable alternatives like Adobe Premier.
The chances are high that your customers aren’t looking to pursue careers in whatever limited solution your business is offering through its app. If that is the case, going with a high-performance, intuitive native app is going to attract and retain users much better than forcing them to use a clunky and confusing hybrid.
When can hybrid apps make real business sense?
Hybrid apps can be a great option for businesses that are unsure of their target market or what kind of features and functionality will ultimately meet their customers’ needs. This is due to the simple fact that hybrid apps can be developed far quicker and for much less money and manpower than native apps.
For businesses that are still in the market-testing phase of app development, going with a hybrid app can make for a flexible and relatively inexpensive means of getting critical mobile solutions out into the marketplace and then being able to quickly revise them, dropping features that prove unpopular and adding new ones to see how the market reacts.
However, once the split-testing phase of the business’ app rollout is complete, most experts will recommend that the apps be ported to a native format. Ultimately, each business in today’s hyper-competitive mobile app space should be looking to deliver world-class functionality and user experience, rejecting anything less as the unacceptable compromise that the end users will almost certainly affirm it to be.