CXO

Hybrid mobile apps: the future of app development?

Hybrid apps may be the norm, not the exception, within a few years as companies try to cut the cost of app deployment across multiple platforms.

With the recent explosion in tablet and smartphone sales and growth of BYOD the modern business can't ignore the need to provide mobile apps for staff and customers that run across multiple platforms.

The challenge of building an app with the right mix of features, performance and platform support at an affordable cost requires firms to decide between whether to build a native, web and hybrid app.

Each approach - coding an app in a platform's native programming language, building a web app or a mix between the two, a hybrid app - has advantages and disadvantages.

As companies look to strike a balance between features, performance and cost, many will turn to hybrid apps, according to analyst house Gartner, which says more than half of mobile apps deployed by enterprise by 2016 will be hybrid. If correct it would mark a departure from the way apps are developed today: only six per cent of mobile apps were being developed using HTML5, according to a survey of 3,600 developers by Appcelerator and IDC last year.

Broadly, when compared to web apps, native apps are considered to have better performance, access to a broader range of platform specific features such as GPS or camera and better looking and more responsive UI.

The downside is the main programming language used on each mobile platform – Objective-C on the iPhone, Java on Android – differ, so writing a native app generally requires writing a new set of code to run on each platform.

Conversely web apps, while lacking some of the performance and features of native apps, can be written once using HTML, CSS and Javascript and run across multiple platforms. In theory developing a web app is requires less work, which means smaller teams and savings for the business.

Hybrid apps are designed to combine the advantages of native and web app development. They are apps that are written in web ‘languages' – HTML, Javascript and CSS – but that use wrappers of native code. These wrappers can provide various enhancements that are normally restricted to native apps, such as a UI with the look of a native app, better performance than pure web apps or access to device features such as GPS or camera.

As workers increasingly use their own and corporate mobile devices in the workplace the necessity of offering software and tools across multiple platforms, while keeping development costs down, will drive businesses towards hybrid app development said Van Baker, research vice president at Gartner.

"Our advice would be to assume the enterprise will have to manage a large and diverse set of mobile applications that will span all major architectures," he said.

"Enterprises should consider how applications can be enriched or improved by the addition of native device capabilities and evaluate development frameworks that offer the ability to develop native, hybrid and Web applications using the same code base. Where possible, development activities should be consolidated via cross-platform frameworks."

However James Governor, co-founder of Red Monk, said that when building mobile apps the choice may not be left up to companies and may instead be heavily influenced by the programming languages and approaches favoured by mobile app developers.

"It's been seen again and again the technologies winning in the marketplace are not the ones that IT chooses but rather the ones that software developers choose. Linux is a great example," he said.

"The CIO may think they are going to spend the next two years deciding what the next hybrid app framework is. In the meantime there will have been an awful lot of iOS and Android apps built."

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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