June 11, 2013

Beauty or the Beast? Understanding Mobile Web and Native Application Development Tradeoffs

These days, when choosing a development strategy for your next mobile app, an essential question is whether to write it as a cross-platform hybrid mobile web app versus “going native”.

A hybrid mobile web app is an application written mostly in JavaScript/HTML5 and wrapped in a native shell using tools such as PhoneGap. A native app is written in a platform-specific programming language (Objective C for iOS, Java for Android, etc.) and is able to take full advantage of all device-specific features. There are also “pure” mobile web apps that run in a browser, but they are not really apps per se because they cannot be placed in platform stores such as Apple’s AppStore or Google’s Play.

There are many parameters to consider when deciding between hybrid and native app development. Many articles on the web provide “pros and cons” which aid analysis. But is there an easy way to understand the tradeoffs, as in the classic project management triangle?


Here’s how it works.

If you want the most elegant and beautiful app that runs both on iOS and Android, be prepared to reach deep into your pocket. That’s because you’ll have to do native apps for each platform. You could probably design your app in a way that some code would be reusable, but the potential savings are quite limited. If you paid X dollars to design and develop your native app for one platform, be prepared to spend 70%-80% of X for each additional platform.

If you have a limited budget, and still want to reach the maximum possible group of users across multiple platforms, be prepared to sacrifice some of the slickness of the user experience. Why? With HTML5 and JavaScript, it only costs 15-30% extra to support each additional platform. You could even afford to include Windows Phone 8 which is gaining momentum, and not break the bank. But complex animations, scrollable lists of transparent images, certain background processes like always-on location tracking: some of that stuff is going to have stay home. Javascript doesn’t have what it takes to pull these off smoothly.

But if you are developing an enterprise mobile app, then you can usually do it in a cross-platform hybrid and do it cheaply. Your audience may not need a top-notch user experience. After years of working with your current enterprise application on Windows, designed in say the early 2000’s, will your users really be that demanding for UX? Even if you believe they will, do you have the budget to address this perceived need? If you do, we’d like to hear from you!

Don’t get us wrong – it’s certainly possible to develop slick, beautiful apps in HTML5/JavaScript as we know from experience. Been there, done that. But be careful – you need to know the pitfalls and limitations of the technology stack you are choosing. You need to know what can be done and what can’t be done. Or you need a developer that knows, and can bring that knowledge to your project. At Waverley, we love AngularJS because it allows us to build really slick JavaScript apps that function well on all major platforms. More on that in another post.

What is your experience with choosing an approach to mobile development? What route have you chosen, what were the tradeoffs you had to make? Did the approach you chose meet your expectations? Share your story!