Guide to mobile app development options: How to choose between native, web, and hybrid

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO
Mobile App Development: How To Choose Between Hybrid vs. Native vs. Web

There is more than one way to build a mobile application. Success begins with choosing the right approach. Developers need to stay on top of the various mobile app development options in order to select the best one.

This guide provides a general overview of the three main avenues mobile app developers can choose—native, web, and hybrid—and the factors you need to consider to make the best choice for your next project.

Mobile app development option 1: Native app development

Native apps are built for a specific platform, which means you need to write new code for each platform you want to support. Swift and Objective C are common programming languages for iOS apps, while Java is a popular choice for Android apps.

Though it can be difficult to quickly develop native apps for multiple platforms, there are tools that can help. For example, Xamarin is a cross-platform toolkit that allows developers to build user interface layouts that can be shared across iOS, Android, and Windows apps. (We often use Xamarin on our own projects and recommend it when taking the native app approach.)

Native apps are usually built with an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). IDEs provide tools for building, debugging, version control, and more. Popular IDEs for Android include Eclipse and Visual Studio with Xamarin. Apple provides Xcode IDE, although other options are available, such as AppCode and Swifty.

The advantages of native mobile app development are:

  • You get a fast and responsive product.
  • They can be distributed in the app store (which helps with findability and user trust).
  • Typically, these apps do not require an internet connection.
  • They deliver a better user experience since they are built according to specific UI standards for a given platform.
  • Developers can access all device features and functionality.

There are also disadvantages to native mobile app development. These include:

  • Developers need to understand specific coding languages.
  • They are more expensive to develop and maintain.
  • Updates require a download.
  • Many native apps require large installations.

Large installations are particularly challenging for native mobile app development. For example, a typical game on Android might be 500MB, since it has to store all assets on the device if it is not pulling them over the air as the app runs. When most users see their phone’s storage is almost full, they delete an app or a game they don’t use regularly. In this regard, native apps run the risk of using too much storage and being deleted as storage space reaches capacity.

Mobile app development option 2: Web app development

A web app is hosted in a web browser, such as Chrome or Safari. It is similar to a website, except that the information is presented more concisely (as one would expect in an app environment).

You do not have to download web apps from an app store, and the app does not take up any storage space on the user’s device. Web apps are usually built in JavaScript, HTML5, or CSS.

Web apps deliver the following advantages:

  • They are easy to build and maintain.
  • They are less expensive.
  • Updates can be pushed to the user (no download required).
  • You write your code once.

The ability to write code once means that you can build one app that works across all platforms (iOS, Android, etc.). In fact, some companies are even using a web app as their company or product website. They get both a usable app and a company site from the same development process, reducing total development time and cost.

The disadvantages of web apps are:

  • They require a web browser to run. The browser is part of the application architecture.
  • They are slower than native apps. Browsers typically do not function at the same speed as the latest smartphone Operating System.
  • Web apps are not accessible via an icon as with a native app. It is possible to install a shortcut to a user’s home screen, but the icon will look like the browser, so the company cannot use their own design and will likely be mistaken for Chrome or Safari.
  • All device functionality is not accessible. While developers can access certain features such as the camera and geolocation through HTML5, advanced functionality is still largely unsupported.

Mobile app development option 3: Hybrid app development

Hybrid apps behave like a native app, but they work across multiple platforms (meaning you only have to write the code once). It is a web app, but it can be installed on the user’s device just as a native app would be. Examples of hybrid mobile apps include Uber and Yelp.

A hybrid app consists of two parts:

  • The backend code, which is built with languages such as JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.
  • A native shell (or wrapper) that loads the code using a WebView. A WebView is a browser bundled inside a mobile application. This allows the app to access hardware features of the device, such as the camera or contacts.

Most hybrid mobile apps are built with the Apache Cordova framework. Cordova is a free and open source tool that wraps your HTML or JavaScript app into a native container. Your app can reach almost every phone and tablet on the market with just one set of code. Plug-ins provide APIs for accessing device capabilities.

Ionic is a popular app platform for building hybrid mobile apps. Developers can build, test, and deploy hybrid mobile apps easily. Ionic is built on top of the Cordova framework.

Hybrid apps can be implemented in two ways:

  • Locally—The code is packaged inside the mobile app binary. REST APIs exchange data between the cloud and the device.
  • On a server—The entire web app is implemented from the server using the native container as a thin shell over the UIWebView.

A recent Ionic Developer Survey found that hybrid apps are growing in popularity. Almost one-third of developers surveyed reported that they expect to make a complete switch to hybrid apps over the next two years.

Hybrid mobile app development is advantageous for the following reasons:

  • They are easier to build than native apps.
  • They are less expensive than native apps.
  • One app works across all platforms.
  • No browser is required.
  • Developers can access device features such as the camera and storage.
  • Developers can re-use their skills from web development.

Disadvantages of hybrid mobile apps are:

  • They are slower than native apps in terms of performance.
  • They are more expensive than web apps since you need to build the shell.
  • Debugging is more complex due to the added shell layer.
  • You cannot customize the app based on platform, which can negatively impact the user experience.
  • You can target multiple platforms with one code, but each platform has certain nuances when it comes to WebView which need to be considered.

Decision time: What you need to consider

  • Timeline—How fast do you need the app built? If you need to get something to market quickly and at a low cost, a web app is your best bet. Hybrid apps can also be built rather quickly, but tend to require more time than a web app.
  • User Experience (UX)—What level of quality are you striving for? If the UX is a high priority and important for user adoption, go with a native app. It is worth the extra development time and money.
  • Features and functionality—Do you need to access more advanced device features, such as streaming? If the answer is yes, you can eliminate a web app from your options. It is also important to note that plug-ins for hybrid apps are not usually immediately available for new device features, making native the better choice over hybrid in these situations. As a general rule, if you start adding a good deal of customization to your hybrid app, you may as well have gone native, as your costs and time to develop will be the same, but the app’s performance will be poorer.
  • Performance—When performance is critical, nothing beats a native app. Real-time updates and 3D graphics, for example, will load faster on a native app. Hybrid performance takes second place, although it is getting better thanks to advances in OS performance and device power.
  • Budget—How much money is dedicated to developing the app? A native app is the most expensive, followed by hybrid and then web apps.
  • Distribution—Do you want your app available in the app stores? Then you need a hybrid or native application.
  • Graphics and animation—Native apps offer the fastest graphics and fluid animation. These features are critical if you need a quick data refresh or provide interactive reporting in your app. This is why game apps are often native.
  • Available skill level—Assess the skill level of your development team. Native mobile app development demands knowledge of Software Development Kits (SDKs) and programming languages for each platform you want to support. Web and hybrid apps allow you to deliver on multiple platforms with the same skill set.

When it comes to mobile apps, the choice between native, web, and hybrid is an important one. There are implications on your total cost, time to market, distribution channels, and customization options based on the decision you make. The checklist provided here can be used as a handy guide to make sure you consider the most important factors up front so you build a mobile app that performs and functions as required, while still staying on budget and under the project deadline.