Mobile apps and web services have been spearheading the digital transformation in the recent decade. The former provide excellent user experience and accessibility whereas the latter offer reliability and consistency across platforms, requiring only a browser to run. So it was only a matter of time before they were combined in what is known as hybrid mobile app development. In fact, this approach has been steadily gaining in popularity over the last years and has already overtaken the native development thanks to cost savings and streamlined process. However, despite its growing popularity, it won’t be suitable for any business. In this article, we’ll look at the main strengths and weaknesses of hybrid apps to help you make an informed choice.
Hybrid app development is steadily gaining in popularity and may well become the new de-facto standard of mobile products. According to a report by Ionic, the share of native app development has dropped nearly sevenfold, with more than 30% of developers switching to the hybrid model.
Other app development statistics seem to confirm the trend: while more than 75% of software developers identify as web devs, the majority of them work for mobile platforms like Google Play and iOS App Store (82% and 70%, respectively) while only 62% target the web browsers. App development frameworks that support the hybrid model are also on the rise, with Ionic far ahead of the competition as the top dev tool. Let’s look at the probable causes of this shift and see if there are any downsides you need to keep in mind.
As its name suggests, a hybrid app is a middle ground between native and web apps, so it makes sense to introduce those two first.
Native app: An application written for a specific platform using programming language and tools native to it (e.g. Java for Android or Swift for iOS).
Web app: A product designed to run in a browser and written in a web programming language (e.g. HTML, CSS, or JS).
Hybrid app: A mixed approach where an HTML-based app is encapsulated in a wrapper native to the platform.
In simple terms, a hybrid app is a web app embedded in a shell that eliminates the need for a browser. This approach streamlines some aspects of app development, reducing the time and cost of the process. However, it also introduces some constraints, which means it will be suitable in some use cases but not others.
The shortcuts provided by hybrid app development offer numerous advantages to users and businesses. Here are the most important ones:
This advantage is particularly relevant for companies targeting multiple platforms with their product. The product consists of a core and a shell, and only the latter is native to the platform. This means businesses only need to develop a new shell and reuse the core web component on other platforms. This not only cuts down the time needed for rolling out a new version but also allows relying (largely) on a single codebase that is much easier to maintain.
Aside from cost savings, the unified codebase makes it easier to keep the product up-to-date and fix bugs across all platforms. In addition to improving user experience, it may come in handy in a highly competitive environment where a strategically timed release may become a critical advantage.
The main difference between native and web apps is that the former provide complete access to the device’s capabilities, both hardware and software. This unlocks the full potential of the app and, understandably, improves user experience compared to that with web-based products. Hybrid development frameworks allow us to achieve a comparable result without investing in native development while at the same time retaining a unified feel across platforms. Now, it certainly does not exactly reach the UX brilliance of native apps, but makes up for it with consistency.
Another advantage of direct access to the device’s native capabilities is performance. Web apps, which run on a remote server, just don’t have that smooth and seamless feel to them. With the hybrid approach, all performance-sensitive UI elements can be built natively, while those requiring network communication can be left on the web. Of course, some slowdown may still occur, yet it won’t be anywhere near that of web apps.
The reliability and robustness of web apps is achieved by the fact that all their data is hosted online, which means the content can be accessed from any place with an Internet connection. The downside, of course, is that without a connection the user is essentially stranded. In hybrid apps, some functionality can be retained even in offline mode, which expands the reach to a broader target audience and improves the product’s usability.
As you might expect, these advantages come at a cost. In some cases, the downsides may outweigh the benefits, so keep them in mind when choosing the approach.
Performance: While hybrid apps outperform web ones by a wide margin, they still don’t quite reach the level of a native application. So, if you are developing a resource-heavy game or a tool that takes advantage of the phone’s hardware, be sure to check whether the hybrid approach can provide what you need.
Data management: Having a web-based core means that usage metrics can only be collected from users who have logged in. If user-generated data is a crucial part of your business model – hybrid apps may not be the thing you are looking for.
Autonomy: Hybrid apps are less Internet-dependent than their web counterparts, yet they are not fully autonomous. If your userbase expects full functionality at all times – make sure they are always within network coverage – or consider switching to native.
Hybrid mobile app development hits a sweet spot between the ease of web apps and the usability of native ones. In many cases, it can provide much-needed shortcuts to simplify and streamline the deployment on multiple platforms and can significantly decrease maintenance costs.
At the same time, it offers a decent level of reliability and UX excellence. Admittedly, it is not a one-fits-all solution – a high-performance mobile game will certainly fare better when developed natively.
Nevertheless, hybrid apps are a great value proposition for most businesses, and the one that may well become the new standard in the domain of digital products in the near future.