Progress, WaveMaker, others make the case for hybrid mobile app development

Hybrid app development

By Tara Seals

With the "borderless office" becoming a ubiquitous phenomenon, today's users demand mobile access to their enterprise applications, which opens up an important market opportunity for developers and software companies. The problem is that building individual native apps for each mobile platform is a complex -- and therefore expensive -- proposition. And it's one that can negate the value of a developer's time and effort, despite the end user demand.

In the past 18 months or so, hybrid mobile development platforms have appeared on the scene to allow developers to use Web technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript to write apps with mobile capabilities that run in multiple environments. This is a much more efficient prospect than rebuilding code from the ground up. This "write once, run everywhere" approach drives much of the complexity and cost out of the equation, and offers developers an important option when evaluating the business cases for their efforts.

"When enterprise app developers first began considering mobile to be an important delivery channel, one of the quickest ways to fulfill that was to write a quick mobile version of the app and put it up in Google Play," said Vijay Pullur, CEO at WaveMaker, which recently launched hybrid mobile app development as part of its open standards-based Rapid App Development (RAD) platform. "It was an easy way to expose some functionality to mobile platforms. But the complexity of the development platforms is deepening now and that process doesn't scale."

WaveMaker

WaveMaker's hybrid RAD development tool.
(Source: WaveMaker blog)

For instance, Android and iOS updates -- which are becoming more and more frequent -- often include underlying platform changes, which means that the smartphone and tablet apps that run on them also have to be updated in order to keep working properly.

"What's happening is that developers are constantly having to accommodate updates and redo the code -- so maintenance is becoming a very costly proposition and it takes up a lot of the developer's time," Pullur said.

The complexity escalates when user interface aspects are taken into account.

"One of the key requirements for mobile apps to be sticky and appealing to users is that they need to conform to the native user UI guidelines," Pullur explained. "iOS and Android have different guidelines for rendering the UI. The menu options are presented differently, prompts are handled in a certain way, and so on. Developers have to write apps to conform to the different UI standards, as well as make them work seamlessly across phone, tablet and Web -- so the challenges start to multiply."

None of that dovetails with the pace of innovation and functionality rollout that the business market demands. According to Gartner, a "major growth driver [for mobile app development platforms] is the need for high-speed app development and short update cycles that organizations are scouting for to align with their digital business initiatives."

And so, hybrid development has entered the mix. Aside from offering a standard way to mobilize Web apps, it also allows developers to innovate and differentiate themselves by leveraging APIs for device capabilities like the accelerometer, camera, and other systems -- key capabilities that are often not accessible by websites simply running on mobile.

Because of all of this, analysts and hybrid supporters see a strong trend towards hybrid mobile development becoming the norm, especially considering that very few enterprise apps will leave out the mobility requirement going forward.

"Unless there's a necessity for an app to be mobile-only, the enterprise segment will see rapid acceleration here," Pullur said. "I wouldn't be surprised if, very soon, it's the only standard that people write to."

Telarik demo

Progress Telerik platform

It's important to note that hybrid will be unlikely to gain big traction in the consumer app development arena, according to Rob Lauer, senior manager of product management for the Telerik platform at Progress. The company launched Telerik two years ago with the goal of smoothing the path of mobile app development.

"The biggest evolution that I've seen is going from thinking that hybrid apps are good for everything, to being mainly focused on internal business apps," he said. "There has definitely been a shift in the market away from developing hybrid consumer apps, because consumers are becoming more and more picky about the apps they install. They have to have amazing UX, and you have to draw them in with a great, engaging experience. Hybrid is not necessarily built for that. Hybrid is a way to get up and running quickly."

He added, "So many of these enterprises have processes that they want to mobilize," said Lauer. "Our idea is to make it simple for developers to tap that opportunity, reduce the choices they have to make, and provide one clean user interface for end users."

All of that said, there are key differences are between native and hybrid approaches, and some developers aren't so certain of hybrid's ascendancy, business focused or not.

"I prefer the security, manageability and power that native coding provides," said developer Atley Hunter. "From my experiences, JavaScript doesn't really offer the stability and portability…simply due the fact that there are always one or more layers of engine to make things actually happen."

Going forward, the choice to go native or hybrid will depend on specific use cases, Lauer said. But it's clear that hybrid app platforms now offer developers a critical option for their toolset.

"It's important to understand that the same subset of hybrid developers will be able to create native apps, reusing existing skills and some chunk of their code," Lauer said. "They have the ability to leverage existing skills to now create cross-platform apps, and people are trying to understand what kind of circumstances dictate each."

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