HTML5 or Native App: What works best on mobile and tablet devices?

The mobile market has grown rapidly over the past couple of years and with the addition of tablets we will continue to see double-digit growth for quite some time, as reported by eMarketer in a recent report.

With all this growth comes a tremendous challenge. Which mobile platforms should a business pursue to optimize growth of audience and revenue, while keeping in mind associated development costs? Should you develop mobile optimized websites, native apps or most recently web apps?

Along with the mobile evolution comes HTML5.  This evolving web technology is a cornerstone of the growing Web App development effort.  Many publishers like HTML5 because it costs less than developing a native app for each mobile platform/Operating System (i.e., iOS, Android, Blackberry, etc.).  With HTML5 web apps, essentially, you build your app once and it will work across all mobile devices.

So, what is HTML5?

It is important to have a layman’s understanding of what HTML5 is  in order to assess the most optimal utilization.

Wikipedia describes it

“A language for structuring and presenting content for the World Wide Web, a core technology of the internet and as of August 2011 is still under development.”

The promise of HTML5 is cross platform development.  It is designed to deliver as close a native app experience as possible but deliver it via the open mobile web.  Since it is the web it does not matter what platform you are using. It can be accessed by any device without going through a proprietary app store front operated by a manufacturer or any other third party.  Just for clarity sake, a native app is an application specifically designed to run on a proprietary platform, taking advantage of its native platform functionality. Without the need to be connected to the Internet.  There is much more to it than that but I did say layman’s discussion.

At present, HTML5 has several strong attributes but it doesn’t offer the same functionality – and doesn’t work as seamlessly – as a native app.  For example HTML5 doesn’t allow deeper integration of the device accelerometer, camera, video and GPS capabilities.  Shown below is a table I borrowed from Worklight. It identifies specific features and shows no single approach is capable of delivering all of the benefits all of the time. Choosing the right approach depends on the specific needs of the organization and can be driven by parameters such as budget, timeframe, internal resources, target market, required application functionality, IT infrastructure and many others. Most companies today face an obvious tradeoff between user experience and application functionality on one hand, and development costs and time to market on the other.

It may sound like HTML5 is long on promise but short on actual results, while a native app delivers a better consumer experience but is more costly and takes longer to develop.

The Hybrid Approach

I believe the best way to pursue a mobile strategy in today’s environment is a hybrid approach.  A hybrid approach takes advantage of the best of both HTML5 and native app technologies to deliver apps with the optimum blend of user experience and cost/time to market.  HTML5 based web apps have exciting possibilities and it’s critical for an organization to developing expertise in this new and fast evolving technology.  But because of its current limitations it is too much of a risk to fully embrace.  The consumer experience may suffer and as fast as the market is moving you could cause harm to your business by not looking savvy to your audience and/or advertisers.

So what is a hybrid app model?  It is merging native app capabilities and functionality with an embedded browser inside the app that runs some of the user interface.  This is all transparent to the user.  You can be assured they don’t care how we get it done, they just want a great user experience.  A benefit of a hybrid app is maximum audience reach.  A hybrid app will be accessible via web search, as well as through app store distribution.

Shown below is a graphic that shows the correlation between a great user experience and the cost and time it takes to create an app.

                                                    Credit Worklight

The hybrid approach allows an organization to develop apps that employ native capabilities and functionality and leverage existing resources to minimize development cost development cycle time. So instead of rewriting code for each proprietary platform which is time consuming and costly, you can write some of the app in HTML or JavaScript (web technology jargon), and re-use it across all platforms.  This type of development opens a whole host of opportunities for the app.  You can now have an app load pages from a web site or even have some or the entire user interface in HTML 5.  Since this is a hybrid app it is still native and needs to be downloaded.  The portions of the app requiring an embedded browser will act and feel like a native app but the user will need internet access to make it all work seamlessly.

From a strategic standpoint I am an advocate of the hybrid approach.  It is not suitable for all app development needs but it does provide a cost effective solution for a wide range of apps.

Here is an article on Web vs Native App development you might find interesting reading.

http://www.informationweek.com/news/development/web/231500197

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