Mobile app development can be categorized into the creation of 3 main types of applications. Native apps, web-based mobile apps, and hybrid apps.
What are the differences between native, hybrid, and web applications?
The simplest way to describe the difference between native, hybrid, and web apps is:
- Native apps are compiled binaries that run on the device. They are the fastest and most secure of the three options.
- Web Applications are hosted and run in the browser and require a connection to the internet to work. Web Apps are the slowest option, with the least access to the device features.
- Hybrid applications (as the name suggests) are a bit of both – part native, and part web app, and fall in the middle in terms of speed.
As of March 2021, Android (71.9%) and iOS (27.33%) dominate the market. This means if you are looking at creating a mobile user experience/applications targetting Android and iOS will provide near full market coverage (99.2%).
What are native mobile applications?
Native applications are typically written and compiled for each platform that they run on. They provide the fastest performance and the highest levels of security as they are compiled and optimized for the hardware. With full access to the hardware, they also benefit from complete access to device features, such as biometrics, camera, sensors, etc. Because native apps use system UI elements, they “fit in” with the platform user experience, achieving the highest adoption rate when rolled out as they are more intuitive to use. This fact is backed up by the fact that native applications dominate the leaderboard for each app store in the market.
While the native application approach provides the best performance, speed, and usability, vendor tools such as Xcode (from Apple for iOS) and Android Studio (for Android) only target a single platform. This can make development cycles longer, more complicated, and ultimately (seemingly) more expensive upfront, due to multiple codebases, Q&A cycles, skills to keep updated, etc. That said, as listed above, there are many reasons to choose this native, and many companies have re-write hybrid apps into native versions following poor user feedback.
Native apps (and also some hybrid apps) can take longer to set up initially, especially if deploying via app stores, however, once set up they are relatively quick to update (but not as quick as a web app without app stores).
The one option on the market that does offer single-source, fully compiled true-native applications, is Delphi. With over 9 years in the market since its launch, FireMonkey (FMX) has matured into a highly flexible framework, built on modern object-orientated and component-based programming, to achieve a low-code RAD approach to mobile development, not only targeting Android and iOS, but also macOS, Linux, and Windows.
What are hybrid applications?
A benefit of hybrid application development is a single-source codebase can target multiple platforms. Additionally, the native shell can allow the extension of the HTML language to reach some parts of the phone’s hardware – However, this is limited in comparison to what a native application can achieve. Hybrid applications can also be set to run offline without a live connection (if configured that way).
The main downside of hybrid applications is that they can still look and behave like a web page. For example, controls can accidentally get multi-selecting in the UI by accident. They are also well known for poor memory and processor optimization, making them resource-intensive.
Security is also a major point to consider, as the source code is typically in clear text inside the application bundles. This makes security compliance when working with Hybrid apps a lot harder to keep on top of. Malicious code injection is a real worry.
Of all these options, the closest to a native application is React Native, which manages to offer access to use some native controls. It has a good community and is backed by Facebook and others. However, Facebook is often quoted as still using pure native application code in places to work around feature limitations. React Native is also not recommended for apps where security is really important (such as financial apps).
Hybrid applications are also often found in many low-code solutions such as Lansa, Mendix, Microsoft PowerApps, and Appian, where the approach has integration to additional backend systems. While these platforms can be impressive for initial speed to market, there are still restrictions to what can be achieved and are categorized by higher running costs due to the per-user pricing they come with.
What are web applications?
Web apps can also be a useful way to deliver content to mobiles. While Web Apps are not installed, (and do need to have a live data connection) they do offer a chance to rapidly change and update what the user can see and do. Web Apps are run via the browser so the main computing power is run remotely, meaning the mobile device needs minimal power and memory to run the web app.
HTML5 has some strong capabilities, including local data storage, that can make limited caching of data possible, however, this is not exactly where you want to store sensitive data!
One major benefit of a web application is that you can get almost 100% market coverage, including on exceptionally niche mobile platforms.
What is the best option for mobile app development?
The answer is really down to the requirements you have!
- If you need to achieve the best level of security, performance, and usability in an application, and value the flexibility to build whatever you need at any time, then native apps are the way to go! The best choice for native app development for mobile is Delphi due to its compiled single source code approach.
- If you need limited access to mobile device features and data security isn’t a major concern, then hybrid apps are a valid approach.
- If you just need to get to multiple platforms quickly (and don’t need access to mobile device features) and security isn’t a worry, then web-apps have the potential to offer a lot. A good option for rapidly developing web apps is Sencha Architect (which is also included as an additional tool in the Delphi Architect edition, offering a wider choice between web and native app development.
Of all the options, the best of true-native, (speed, performance, and device access) and cross-platform support in a single code base (helping manage long-term costs) is only seen in Delphi. While Delphi may be seen as a niche product compared to some other platforms, developers (especially those familiar with C#) are easily up-skilled to the framework at a fraction of the cost of running multiple development projects and keeping multiple skill sets up to date. And with 26+ years of market experience, and 9+ years offering a unique multi-platform approach, it’s arguably years ahead of others in areas.