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Hybrid apps: The future of mobile development?

Gartner recently posted its 2013 mobile and wireless predictions and, right there at the top of the list, analysts predicted that by 2016 more than 50 percent of mobile applications will be hybrid.

To date, a lot of the discussion about agencies’ mobile services has centered on whether to build a native mobile application or host the service on a mobile-accessible website. So where do hybrid apps come into play?

In Gartner’s report, Van Baker, the company’s research vice president, said enterprises could benefit by developing frameworks that allow them to build all three kinds of apps — native, Web and hybrid — using the same code base. “Where possible, development activities should be consolidated via cross-platform frameworks," he said.

So the trend toward hybrid apps is under way, raising the question, “What makes an app a hybrid app?” Agencies that have decided to build their own apps need to know the difference and how hybrid apps can save time and money.

A native app is developed expressly for use on a mobile platform. It is written in a language that may be unique to an operating system, and it may directly access a platform-specific emulator to produce its output to a device. The advantage, of course, is that there's no worry about platform-compatibility, since the app is developed for a specific platform.

The disadvantage is that because there are several mobile platforms out there, agencies wanting their apps to run on all platforms will need to have platform-specific versions for all of them. Public-sector agencies moving toward mobile, BYOD environments are generally encouraged to accommodate multiple platforms.

The second kind of app, a mobile website or Web application, runs on a server and delivers the content to the user through a browser. It is developed with code such as PHP and ASP.NET. It has the advantage of being able to deliver content regardless of the mobile platform being used because Web browsers generally have the same capabilities.

The disadvantage here stems from its advantage — an application or Web page might not look the same to different browsers, and the design might not look at all right on certain platforms. Responsive design can help mitigate these differences, although the development period is more involved. The Mobile Gov Wiki is a good resource for examples of responsive design and overall best practices for mobile Web. 

The third option, the hybrid app, is composed of elements of the other two. It is usually written in a Web-based code such as JavaScript, CSS and HTML, like a Web application, but it runs on the device, rather than on a Web page, making use of a device’s browser engine without using the browser itself. What makes this work is that the platforms’ native APIs are shown to a hybrid app as if they were in JavaScript. This allows a hybrid app not only to be accessible on different platforms, but also to be able to get the most out of each of those platforms’ capabilities.

As agencies allow more and more kinds of mobile devices into the workplace, how they develop apps to accommodate that influx may have to change. Hybrid apps will allow agencies to build applications for various operating systems and more deftly utilize the different capabilities of each platform.

Of course, what path an organization chooses will depend upon its specific needs, but as the mobile environment evolves, Gartner’s prediction could stand a good chance of coming true.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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