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What is Hybrid App Development?

This global quest of winning the mobile user’s attention, and subsequently its revenue, is compelling the mobile app developers to create more advanced apps in less time. This prominent need has given birth to a concept called hybrid app development. Hello, I am Kalrav P from India, and today I want to share something important with you all. In today’s world, our mobile devices have become our first go-to resource for most daily activities. My personal daily usage of the internet has increased, but the usage of the desktop has decreased significantly over the last 5 years. That is all due to mobile apps installed on my phone for all my daily needs.

The Hypergrowth of Mobile Apps

I am a professional software developer and I have been tracking the growth of mobile apps around the globe and what a fantastic digital decade they had. Today, there are more than 4.4 million apps on Apple App Store and 2.4 million apps on the Google Play store. Every month, Google releases 100K Android apps on average and Apple releases 30K apps on average. In 2019 alone, the total number of apps downloaded was 204 billion!! Geographically speaking, my home country India and our neighboring country China were the major contributors to this worldwide growth with an increase of 190% and 85% respectively, compared to 2016 downloads. And then, there are emerging markets opening up in the form of countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Czech Republic, Greece, Mexico, South Africa. Gen Z and millennials are the pioneers of this growth. The estimated revenue to be generated from mobile apps will be close to 600 billion USD by the end of 2020 and it is expected to reach 1 trillion USD by 2023. What does it mean? What do we make out of all these promising numbers? My first take is this attractive growth has come on the back of fierce competition. There is pressure rising on mobile app developers to make their apps more interactive, more sticking, and radically better than their competitors.

Defining Hybrid App Development and its History

Hybrid app development, an emerging technology in mobile application development, has now become one of the critical topics in all major engineering discussions of the companies, especially of new-age startups. So, let’s talk about what hybrid app development is, for what kind of development objectives it can be applied to, what are the key benefits of it and what major challenges you face when you want to build an app in a hybrid environment. First, let’s talk about how we get here. Before the concept of developing hybrid apps hit the developers community, we had an age-old development concept of native app development. Any mobile application written in their native platform language and compiled by their native supported software is called a native mobile application. For example, applications written in Swift or Objective C, compiled using XCode for iOS, or applications written in Java, compiled with android SDK for Android are called native applications of their respective platforms. Being native to the platform and close to the metal, it served many benefits such as using the device’s native functionalities, direct access to hardware like Bluetooth, GPS sensor, Accelerometer, Security thing like Touch ID via API. Applications can easily take advantage of those functions to build robust apps. Due to native capabilities, the performance of the application used to be standard and satisfactory to quite an extent. It also allowed developers to explore native UI libraries for better graphics, or UI components for UI rich applications for a significant period of time. As customers’ demands evolved, the business priorities have shifted, too. The fairly decent and successful approach of Native App Development started bringing few challenges. Every platform needs its own set of instructions hence the code needs to be developed as per the platform, which makes developers maintain multiple source code. Every issue/feature has to be thoroughly checked and fixed/implemented as per various platforms. Native applications have gatekeepers and are subject to approval for following all the regulations before they go to live and frequent releases will be a headache. E.g, Apple has such a rigorous process of approval that it takes 2-3 days for them to review the app and almost always comes back with a request to rework. My previous employer used to reward the app developer if his/her application gets approved in 2-3 days and in the first go. Hence, these operational challenges w.r.t Native App Development have started to mount on developers. Millennials and gen Z are the two most tech-savvy generations with ​rapidly growing purchasing power​. Your company and hence your app should be aligned to their pacey requirements. Another major development area is web application development, let’s understand that first quickly so we are all equipped to dive into hybrid app development later.

What is Web Application Development?

Generally, web applications are browser-based applications, what runs on your browser becomes web applications like York IE Fuel. It uses traditional HTML, CSS and javascript technologies client-side and uses languages like PHP, java, python on the backend server-side. Since it uses browsers, it has very limited space to be within and bounds to some extent on the functionalities it can provide. Though it has started getting some required capabilities like notifications, offline capabilities, etc. Frameworks have been developed for the ease of creating complex web applications, reusing multiple components, etc. React, Vue, Next js, Flutter are widely used platforms for application development. Now, let’s talk about hybrid apps. As the name suggests, they’re a blend of native and web applications. The core functionalities are developed in HTML, CSS, and Javascript like a web application but as we discussed earlier, it runs on a browser. So it does not have native capabilities or access to such native components, so in hybrid app development, that limitation is eliminated using plugins. It can be looked at this way – hybrid applications are basically a web development, but remove the limitations and get the support of native components using a plugin. It uses a natively embedded browser kit for the UI and native environment, so users do not see the browser and feel like a native app. iOS uses WKWebView for the same purpose and the WebView element is used for the Android platform. There is a quite significant development going on with hybrid app development and many platforms are offering a wide range of services to make developers’ lives easier. The popular ones are:
  1. React native
  2. Ionic
  3. Flutter
  4. Xamarin
  5. Corona SDK
  6. Intel XDK
Based on my experience, I have listed the major pros and cons of developing hybrid apps.

Pros of Hybrid Apps

  1. Cross-platform compatibility. A single codebase can run on multiple platforms hence only having to maintain a single codebase.
  2. Time to market is far less as cross-platform compatibility significantly reduces the efforts of the development for multiple platforms
  3. Developer friendly since the majority of the code has to be written once.
  4. Code reusability is high, the same code can be used for web development too.
  5. Can use the device’s native functionalities still being on the browser inside.
  6. Extremely cost-effective.
  7. Instant releases since it does not require to resubmit as native code has not changed.
  8. Does not need expertise on a specific platform, Knowledge of HTML, CSS, Javascript is all it needs.

Cons of Hybrid Apps

  1. Can not use native UI components/libraries so the whole UI needs to be developed. But frameworks such as react, flutter makes it easy.
  2. Performance and user experience are medium to high compared to native applications because of the extra layer of the plugin.
  3. Does not have access to all native functionalities.
  4. Can not take the advantage of the latest native platform improvements/enhancement immediately.

Key Takeaways

Your app development strategy should put the end-user in the center and the development approach should be defined accordingly. I would not recommend developing hybrid apps if your app is tightly interactive, feature-rich, and requires high performance. (e.g combat games, interactive online shopping, etc). Since this concept of hybrid app development is widely picking up, we will see further developments from the community to make it as close to native app development as possible in terms of the ease of development, eliminating common challenges of it.

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