The mobile market is an ever growing behemoth. The worldwide number of app downloads has increased almost two fold in just 6 years, from 140 billion downloads in 2016 to an estimated 258 billion in 2022, so far. There is no denying that mobile devices are an indispensable element of everyday life, with close to 84% of the global population owning a smartphone. This is a considerable bump in numbers since only 49% of the population owned one in 2016. That is a significant demographic change, and with that, the market for mobile development has increased.
However, the revenue from the mobile market doesn’t seem to have experienced the same increase in growth, which could mean that companies are not reaching the full potential of their ROl. That may be understandable, given that it’s a relatively new territory worth exploring. But, it’s imperative that this exploration is done the best way possible because the same way that this is a profitable business, users are sensitive to the apps that they download to their devices, and particularly about what they want with them. Data shows that 56% of the downloaded apps get uninstalled within 7 days, so it is crucial to develop applications with the best performance, stability and security in mind. Delivering an MVP quickly is great, but delivering a quality user experience is more important for the long-term success of any mobile app.
In this article we will look into mobile app development, focusing mainly on the different types of mobile development. This will cover native app development, web app development and hybrid app development. We are going to try to answer the question of native vs hybrid mobile app development, and give some perspective into which of those is the best approach for certain needs.
What is native app development?
Native applications are designed in a specific language for a specific device, meaning they are built for the particular platform it is intended for. Therefore, a native application done for android will never work for iOS, and vice versa. This specificity means the application can take full advantage of all the capabilities of the device it is programmed for, such as gestures, location, GPS, camera, and so on. This vastly improves performance and makes the app fast and easy to use. Designing them this way allows for a more user focused approach, making the app more intuitive and interactive in terms of everyday use.
- Very fast and responsive.
- Built to run on a specific platform.
- Easily distributed through the respective platforms.
- Interactive and intuitive user interface.
- Full use of device utilities.
- Works on a single platform.
- More specialized languages.
- More expensive as you need different developments for each platform.
- Harder to maintain.
What is web app development?
It refers to the development of web based applications that acts as a responsive website that’s accessed through a regular browser like Safari or Chrome. They are built like a regular website, with the use of HTML, CSS, etc. but are tailored towards a smaller screen and made to look as good as possible, designed with a mobile first approach. They are easy to build and maintain because they use regular web technologies and tools. One of the most common cases of this is progressive web applications (PWAs).
- Easy to build simple apps.
- Can choose between different technologies/languages to create.
- Cheaper than native or hybrid applications.
- Single application for all platforms.
- Requires a browser to run the application.
- Slower than native applications.
- Less interactive and intuitive user interface.
- Can’t use the full potential of mobile devices
What is hybrid app development?
A hybrid application is a single app that can run on multiple operating systems like Windows, iOS or Android, that combines elements from web and native development to supply certain deficiencies in each other. So, are hybrid apps the perfect solution to the native vs hybrid mobile app development dilemma?
On the surface, they can be perceived as a native application, but hybrid apps have the advantage of having a single codebase to supply multiple device types. It is easier to build than a native application and incurring a smaller cost. Since the native layer is not the full picture, it does not have all the advantages that a native application may have in terms of performance and functionality.
- Less expensive than native.
- Single app for all platforms.
- No browser needed.
- Faster to develop.
- Slower than native apps.
- More expensive than web applications.
- More difficult to mimic native user experience.
- Might get problems with 3rd party frameworks to access mobile features.
Which framework is best for hybrid app development?
A hybrid app requires a framework. The amount of frameworks available for hybrid development keeps growing over time, with varying degrees of popularity among mobile developers. All of them have their pros and cons, and use different languages and methodologies. Here are some examples:
- React Native: One of the most popular frameworks for building mobile applications, React Native is developed and maintained by Facebook. It is an open-source software that is widely used for cross-platform application development. Some of the most commonly used applications, like Amazon Prime and Skype, are built using React Native. The advantages are code reusability, great performance thanks to a separate UI threading and live reloading of code changes.
- Flutter: Flutter, an open source framework produced by Google, uses the code base to develop native applications for iOS and Android. Flutter comes with a full rendering engine, widgets, and provisions for testing and integrating the API. Apps like Google, eBay, and BMW use Flutter. The pros are an expressive UI that promotes customization, faster coding thanks to hot reloading and close to native performance due to the native ARM compiler.
- Xamarin: Xamarin is open source software developed by Microsoft. It builds native Android, macOS, watchOS, iOS and tvOS using .NET and C#. Here, an abstraction layer addresses the interaction between platform code and shared fragments. Main advantages here are a single stack, easy maintenance, and a better testing environment with Xamarin Test Cloud.
Native vs Hybrid Mobile App Development vs Web Apps
Now that we’ve seen what the advantages and disadvantages are for each of the mobile app development types, let’s compare them and observe which one is the most appropriate candidate for each specific need. There is a tradeoff between them that needs to be considered in terms of the cost of building/maintaining, performance and overall best use of the device capabilities.
At the far left of the spectrum, we have web applications, which are by far the most cost effective ones because of the use of common languages and need to maintain a single codebase, but they require a web browser to operate, as well as slower and less intuitive due to the added extra layer via the browser, while also making limited use of the hardware capabilities of the device. At the other end, we have native apps, which are very costly in terms of development, deployment and maintenance due to having a specific language and codebase for each platform, but fully utilizing the device capabilities, with better performance because there’s no need for an additional abstraction level. These can be directly distributed easily through their specific app store, while the web apps require other means of distribution.
In the middle of the spectrum, however, we can find hybrid apps, which offer a nice mix between a closer feel and advantage to native applications while also removing the burden of having to deploy and maintain multiple codebases for the same application in different platforms. Although this approach is not perfect, it balances out both ends to create something that might appeal to different entities.
So, which approach is the best?
In the end, we ask ourselves the question, which approach is the best of all? And the answer is, none of them, because the question itself is disingenuous at best. All three development approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, but at the end of the day our needs dictate which one better fits our goals. If cost and time of delivery are of utmost importance, we would probably select a web application, because it is the cheapest in building and deploying and allows for a single codebase, while sacrificing the full potential of the mobile device. If, on the other hand, the performance and the reliability of the device is what matters, native is the way to go because we ensure those things at the expense of a costlier product. Hybrid applications are the best of both worlds, and the selected option when cost and performance are factored in, but not caring as much about the delivery time.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to development approaches, only specific solutions to certain problems.
Daniel Brinzei is a mobile software developer, with around 5 years of experience in the field. He is specialized in Android and iOS Native development, as well as Flutter, and has a passion for design.