The Natives Are Getting Restless: The Emergence of Hybrid Web Apps in Developing Mobile Experiences

Recently, a client asked a question that’s become a popular discussion topic among marketers – should we design for native apps or for the semantic Web? What they were really asking was should we invest the time and money it takes to develop native apps for all those different mobile platforms and operating systems? The short answer is it depends. Many brands are wrestling with the same decision. However, the growing adoption of Web-based standards and updated APIs for delivering mobile experiences is making this question easier to answer.

Most of the complexity arises when developing for Android. As a brand, Android has been very successful. Recent data from research firm IDC confirms Android’s global smartphone market share is more than four times that of the popular iOS. If marketers want to maximize reach, they need to develop apps for Android. As an experience, Android has frustrated the app developer community by maintaining multiple OS variations, requiring more effort on the part of developers. For example, Android KitKat – the latest version of the OS (v4.4) has only been distributed on 2.5 percent of the installed base compared to 62 percent and 19 percent for the older Jelly Bean (v4.2.x) and Gingerbread (v2.3.x) versions, respectively. Although Apple’s global market share has been eclipsed by Android, the company has been much more diligent about migrating users and developers to its most recent iOS release (by the end of 2013, iOS 7 users represented 78 percent of Apple’s installed base). Apple has kept versioning of its iOS operating system to a minimum. As a result, creating apps for the iPhone and iPad has been easier for developers than creating apps for the many flavors of Android.


The promise of an open, cross-platform solution to the versioning challenges of both iOS and Android has garnered HTML5 a lot of attention among mobile developers. Research shows the majority of time spent on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) is spent engaging with apps, versus the mobile Web. However, the technology of apps is rapidly changing. The growth of hybrid apps – those developed for native platforms with open, standards-based Web technologies – is redefining how engaging, extensible mobile experiences are created. The potential for mobile Web content based on open standards like HTML5 rather than a proprietary operating system has spawned new, open operating systems like the Firefox OS from Mozilla. According to data from software solutions provider Telerik, HTML5 development is growing, compared to exclusively native app development. This makes it easier for developers to create content that works across hardware platforms, which in turn benefits advertisers who have a common standard for integrating with Web-based ad networks.

As Web standards evolve, brands that aspire to create responsive and adaptive digital experiences can benefit from a write once, run anywhere approach to app development. In the past, template-based solutions for cross-platform app development forced brands to sacrifice a quality user experience to achieve a minimum level of functionality across mobile OS’s. That’s not the case anymore. Web apps based on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript can provide the flexible, scalable, cross-platform, enterprise-grade experiences that brands need to compete in a multi-platform world. They also provide something that native apps struggle with and that brands need most: the ability to be indexed by popular search engines.

What’s the point of building a killer app if all the great features and helpful content are hard to find? The problem with most native apps is they cannot be indexed by Google. To overcome this, Google recently developed App Indexing to allow content in apps to be indexed and appear as results in its search engine, but the functionality is only being beta-tested on a few sites right now. With hybrid apps and Web apps based on open standards, content is more easily accessible to search engines, which makes it easier for users to find and engage with.

The need to design strictly for native apps is disappearing faster than expected. Cross-platform compatibility and widely accepted standards will make Web apps more attractive to both developers and advertisers, as HTML5-based mobile experiences become more common. There will always be a need for native apps, especially for mobile games with sophisticated 3-D graphics. But for brands that are more interested in creating scalable, enterprise-grade apps than creating the next Angry Birds, a hybrid approach to Web app development offers the best of both worlds.

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