Dev

How hybrid apps will help in the $100B battle for mobile dominance

Image Credit: Daniel Y. Go

Marko Lehtimaki is CEO and founder of AppGyver.

Eighty percent of mobile usage is via native apps as opposed to mobile websites, and that’s hardly surprising. The superior user experience and the unique opportunities native apps offer for developers will ensure native apps prevail for a long time.

But companies are showing more and more interest in the cross-platform approach as fragmentation continues and new devices, form factors, and operating systems hit the market. The most promising approach is to build an HTML5 hybrid app. At the moment, HTML5 hybrid apps are considered a compromise in terms of performance compared to fully-native apps. But that’s about to change. The next generation of hybrid apps will change everything for good.

Building HTML5 hybrid apps

Hybrid apps are first constructed using HTML5 and JavaScript, and then packaged for installation on various devices via traditional app stores. Because they run locally in native application packages, hybrid apps can access features such as the camera, address book, and GPS.

Technically, a hybrid app consists of a HTML5 web app within a “wrapper.” The wrapper is a simple native application, which is essentially a full-screen browser window that points to the HTML document of the web app. When the app starts, the HTML document loads, and the web app starts running in a browser window inside the wrapper app.


Editor’s note: The Mobile Experience is the main theme of VentureBeat’s upcoming MobileBeat 2013 conference, July 9-10 in San Francisco. One of the conference tracks will focus on mobile development tools for HTML5 and native apps. Learn more about MobileBeat.


The advantage of running the HTML document in the wrapper app, rather than a browser, is that most of the assets required by the web page are stored inside the native app package on the device, rather than on the server. This means that the app runs noticeably faster, and can run fully offline as with a native app.

Publishing an app to multiple platforms from a single HTML5 codebase also dramatically lowers development costs, and employing the same codebase as a foundation for a search-friendly mobile website saves further expense, and gets the full suite of mobile apps to market faster.

What are the shortcomings of hybrid apps?

With global mobile app development spending heading toward the $100 billion mark, the potential savings from hybrid app development are massive. Nevertheless, serious app developers would still choose to build a native app over a hybrid one owing to the resulting quality of the user experience and the lack of adequate development tools.

Hybrid apps are normally considered a compromise in terms of the user experience. It takes a great deal of extra work on the part of HTML5 developers to try to produce platform-consistent user interface behavior, which typically falls short of that of the native UI. Moreover, in iOS the wrapped browser runs up to 3x slower than Mobile Safari due to security restrictions. In short, the user experience offered by hybrid apps typically falls well short of that for native app equivalents. There’s no sense in building a hybrid app if it’s going to receive a one-star rating in the app store.

Furthermore, while native application development tools are robust and comprehensive, the same cannot be normally said of hybrid app development tools. Critical debugging provisions tend to be hopelessly inadequate and delays associated with previewing the effects of code changes makes development a painfully long process with these tools. In short, the hybrid app development experience normally falls far short of that for native apps.

Bridging the hybrid-native divide

As more mobile operating systems gain traction, such as Tizen and Firefox OS, the app market will become even larger and even more fragmented.

While pure native apps are the clear choice at present, the next generation of HTML5 hybrid apps may soon bridge the gap between today’s crude hybrids and fully native apps. How will they accomplish this? Essentially by providing full access to the user interface features of the host device’s operating system via JavaScript. This will deliver fully native, smooth and consistent UI behavior to the hybrid apps, redefining and repositioning the whole hybrid app category.

The hybrid app development challenges, including the debugging processes, are being addressed by the likes of Appurify. Google’s AngularJS, on the other hand, has raised the bar on JavaScript-driven web app development. As more organizations, groups, and individuals contribute to overcoming these shortfalls, the advantages of hybrid apps will become predominant, especially for middle- and lower-tier projects.

The hybrid-native divide should close rapidly in the coming months, resulting in an upsurge in demand for next-gen hybrid apps due to their financial savings, cross-platform distribution capabilities, and the huge pool of qualified web developers. As hybrid apps reach the quality of their native equivalents, their predominance will come through natural market pull. This paradigm shift will be a win for the web technologies.

Web developers take heed: a new world of opportunity is approaching. Native app development will continue apace, but HTML5 is about to become more relevant than ever, especially as it becomes more compatible with native.

Better native extensibility

Every now and then there’s a need to access to something in the native technology set which is not available in the core of the hybrid app framework of choice. It can be a need for a native barcode reader, or a requirement to embed the native maps feature in the app.

In such cases, enabling additional third-party, native software development kits should be made easy. It shouldn’t be more difficult than utilizing a third party JavaScript library. Presently however, this is far from the truth.

In order to use a third-party native library, someone has to provide support for that library in the hybrid app framework. Many hybrid app frameworks do provide support for native plugins, but typically the available plugins are open source projects, contributed by hobbyists, and rarely up-to-date or tested against the latest versions of the operating system.

In order to provide reliable support and to make native plugins enjoyable to use, someone has to take leadership. There’s a great need for the “Heroku for native plugins.” It could potentially allow an interesting business model for the plugin developers as well.

Bright future

Whenever there’s an obvious need in the market, the market typically takes care of itself. In the very near future hybrid app development, and individuals with the requisite skills, are going to enjoy their day in the sun.

If you’re a web developer, get ready. It will be awesome.


Marko Lehtimaki, AppGyverMarko Lehtimaki is CEO and founder of AppGyver, a provider of rapid mobile app development platforms. Marko has strong experience in mobile app development as well as rapid development practices. Finland-born serial entrepreneur, currently living in San Francisco, Marko specializes in bridging technology based innovations with the real-world business requirements. Prior to founding AppGyver, Marko was involved in the development of various mobile apps for major brands in entertainment and retail.


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