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Everyone seems to be gung-ho about HTML5 or native mobile apps, and religiously preaching for one approach over the other. Yet, while mobile giants such as Apple and Google battle it out, some companies are already opting for a third option — mediating the two approaches in what is popularly known as the “hybrid app approach”.
Hybrid app development employs native capabilities while also serving as a strategic stepping stone towards adoption of HTML5.
The term “hybrid” actually spans a wide range of possibilities. Some apps, like the Bank of America, Facebook and Yelp iPhone apps, simply load some pages from their web site as part of the app. Other apps, like the Tower Madness game, include a few embedded pages that are written in HTML. But there are other apps, like Harmonius (a graphical sketchpad) or Logitec’s Squeezebox Controller that have their entire UI implemented in HTML.
A primary reason that many companies are not already jumping on the HTML5 bandwagon is the belief that HTML apps cannot access native device features. Indeed, pure mobile web apps (i.e., those that run in the browser – not hybrid ones) are currently restricted in their access to features such as the camera, microphone, address book, and so forth. And while there is work in progress at the W3C to allow web apps to access such device services, mobile browsers do not currently provide such functionality – a key requirement for many innovative mobile apps.
Access to device features is not the only difference between hybrid apps and mobile web apps. Another important difference is that hybrid apps are mostly distributed through app stores: You don’t browse to a hybrid app – you download and install it.
Differences aside, hybrid apps share some traits with mobile web apps. Unlike pure native apps, which make direct use of the graphics APIs and UI services provided by the operating system, in hybrid apps, most pages are executed by the rendering engine of a browser – much like they are in web apps. This means that, currently, only natively coded pages can achieve game-quality graphics, and although this is less relevant for business apps, you probably won’t be seeing the likes of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 written in HTML for mobile devices anytime soon.
Fortunately, the leading smartphones and tablets have very powerful HTML rendering engines, which already support most of the upcoming HTML5 and CSS3 standards.
For those cases where your app does require special graphics or system-level interaction that cannot be achieved with HTML, hybrid apps can combine web pages with native ones. One interesting hybrid example is an app by Korean credit card Lotte (pictured below), which has 100 pages written in HTML (reused between Android and iPhone), along with a small number of native pages that implement an augmented reality feature.
Other organizations are developing hybrid apps, while planning to turn them into HTML5 web apps in the future without having to rewrite them from scratch.
From a strategic point of view, development organizations should seriously consider adopting HTML for mobile app development sooner rather than later. The hybrid app model, although not suitable for all app development needs, provides a cost-effective solution for a very wide range of downloadable app types and allows gradual entry into the new world of HTML5 while future-proofing your investment.
Ron Perry is chief technology officer at Worklight, a leading HTML5, hybrid and native platform for smartphone and tablet applications.