Best of Both Worlds
Apps are everywhere. Triggered by the birth of Apple’s App Store and the emergence of Facebook as a distribution platform for apps and content, consumers and businesses alike are fully embracing the app experience. As a result, organisations across a breadth of industries need to be engaging with their mobile audience via apps, but developing for these devices has become increasingly complex and costly.
For some time, we’ve seen a debate raging about the relative merits of native apps versus the open web. In fact, there’s not necessarily a direct competition at all, given that the two are suited to very different but complementary stages of a consumer relationship. Mobile web is ideal for discovery and awareness, but native apps have been very successful in driving consumer loyalty and nurture. But the emergence of a new breed of app – the hybrid app – testifies that it doesn’t need to be either/or when it comes to app development. What really matters is having a strategy in place for reaching the breadth of mobile platforms your audience is using.
The problem with the native app model
The native app is not a fad, and given its incredible success and momentum, it’s not going away anytime soon. The phrase ‘native’ refers to locally installed apps which are engineered to run in the computer environment being used, and don’t run in the browser. But the native app concept has aged, and stress fractures are starting to appear. Platform-specific native app development has proven to be expensive. Native app developers not only cost more and are harder to find, but are also highly specialised.
The problem is made worse by fragmentation, caused by the proliferation of consumer electronics platforms, and each new device brought to market. What’s more, the languages for native development are far more rigid and structured than those driving the success of the web.
It’s because of this that we’re seeing the emergence of a new app development model: the hybrid app concept. It’s an approach being adopted by the likes of Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft, and demonstrates how HTML5 is fundamentally transforming app development.
The hybrid app incorporates proprietary technologies for native apps with the open standard of HTML5. Developed with cross-platform HTML5 wrapped in a native, platform-specific container, it’s proving to be a truly innovative approach to multi-platform app development.
The biggest appeal is that HTML5 provides a uniform programming model based on existing web technologies. It not only works across multiple devices, but the wrapper enables developers to take advantage of native device capabilities such as the camera, microphone, local storage or notification system – things that are off-limits to the browser. With hybrid, there’s no need to build each native app entirely from scratch in platform-specific languages like Objective-C or Java. Only the wrapper needs to be based on proprietary technology, and the HTML5 core can be written by less costly web developers and re-used for every platform.
So who’s already doing it?
Last year we saw the launch of the Facebook iPad app which coincided with the re-release of the iPhone version and a new Android version. These were all based on the new hybrid app approach, where the bulk of the app is HTML5, and other industry giants are following suit. Microsoft recently shipped new versions of its Bing for Mobile app built with HTML5 in a native container, while Netflix made its shift to HTML5 for creating native app UI well over a year ago. Since then, it’s been shipping HTML5-based hybrid apps across many mobile device platforms, smart TVs, gaming devices, and other consumer electronics platforms.
But what about everybody else? Is a strategy that works for the largest companies in the industry open to smaller organisations without the same resources? Organisations and media publishers of all sizes who are serious about their mobile strategy are figuring out how to get their apps on to the many new platforms where their audiences’ attention is shifting. As a result, we’re seeing the rise of a new software category – the content app platform – designed to help companies do exactly that.
Developers will continue to flock towards the HTML5 programming model – not only because it extends the powerful and mature tool chain available to developers into the mobile world, but also because it will be the only way to target multiple devices simultaneously, while maintaining the rapid pace that has fuelled both the web and mobile worlds.
Ashley Streb is VP of technology at Brightcove