Mobile application developers debate hybrid solutions

Mobile applications developers stuck on the HTML5-native debate have a third option -- building hybrid apps.

Native mobile app development is expensive and sometimes a very lengthy project, in large part because the apps

are built to run on specific mobile devices and operating systems. But native mobile apps can take full advantage of such on-device features as the compass, camera and GPS and generally offer better performance than apps written in the HTML5 Web language.

Writing the HTML5-based hybrid mobile app core is often depicted as easy and requiring little development experience, but this is misleading.

On the other hand, mobile apps can be developed faster and more affordably in the Web-based HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript platforms. In addition, they work across multiple mobile platforms, providing write once, run anywhere (WORA) mobile apps. But they often fall short of native app performance and do not yet have access to all on-device features.

An alternative to native and Web mobile apps is hybrid mobile applications, which attempt to combine the strengths of native and HTML5 mobile app development while minimizing their disadvantages. Furthermore, hybrid mobile applications are distributed by app stores such as Apple App Store and Android Play just like native mobile apps, making them more readily available than pure HTML5 mobile apps. They can simply be downloaded and run on mobile devices like any other app store item.

To build a hybrid mobile app, you write the core of the application as an HTML5 mobile app and then place a native device wrapper around it. The HTML5 core of the hybrid mobile app runs inside the native container and leverages the mobile device's browser engine (not the browser itself) to render the HTML5 and process the JavaScript locally. The native wrapper essentially gives the hybrid mobile app access to the native on-device features that are off-limits to the mobile device browser. It acts as an intermediary and translates instructions that a developer has written into a form that the mobile device understands.

The HTML5 app core can then be reused for other mobile platforms. Only the native wrapper needs to be written for each mobile device and operating system. You can automatically generate wrappers (aka containers) by using software from vendors such as PhoneGap and Appcelerator, greatly reducing development time.

Takeaways

Before committing to native mobile or hybrid mobile applications, consider the user experience and what each development option provides as well as the level of investment needed to achieve your mobile app goals. Also consider the benefits of hybrid mobile apps outlined above.

But also be aware of the drawbacks of hybrid mobile applications, including performance issues. No mobile device browser fully supports HTML5, and the support may be uneven across devices.

More on mobile app development

Explore SearchCloudApplications.com's expert tips

Writing the HTML5-based hybrid mobile app core is often depicted as easy and requiring little development experience, but this is misleading. The process still requires developers to have experience with HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. If you have Web app developers in-house, the job is easy. If you do not, it is not so easy.

Making hybrid mobile application development as easy as advertised usually requires buying into one vendor's approach to building containers for the HTML5-based core. Choose a container vendor that agrees with your mobile app goals. Since many container vendors are small companies -- startups in some cases -- try to find one that could be around for a sufficiently long time.

Development organizations should seriously consider adopting HTML5 for mobile app development sooner rather than later. Hybrid mobile apps developed today with HTML5 cores can be turned into HTML5 mobile Web apps in the future without having to rewrite them from scratch. This approach can provide a gradual entry into the future world of HTML5 as its gains greater support.

This was first published in January 2013

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