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I want to develop a mobile application. I recently read an article on Telerik Forum, which compares among three types of mobile application and I don't know which one should I select to begin with. Here is an image describing the pros and cons of different mobile design choices

Telerik mobile design chart

To decide between these design choices, I would like to better understand the pros and cons of each architecture choice listed in the diagram. What are the pros and cons of each architecture approach?

Being a mobile developer myself, the worst thing is offline access. You simply force users to be online which should work in a lot of apps, but not in all.

The other great bad aspect is slowness. Time needed to parse remote data can take significant time. Yes, you can pre-fetch data during the load time, but in all other cases you cannot avoid slowness.

I found that such app ended app more expensive than native ones. I no longer recommend them to any client of mine.

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If you need to access the phones hardware, you should build a native app (in HTML5 you can access some of the hardware components of the device such as GPS).

If you are more comfortable with web development, you should stick with that unless you need to make a native app.

As far as what you should know, i would say that you should keep in mind all the different screen sizes (including vertical and horizontal orientation). You should keep in mind various versions of the OS (this is more for android). Since these are mobile deivces, there is the chance that the user will answer a phone call it its a phone and also they do not have the computing power of a desktop or server.

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I'm a mobile developer who has spent a great deal of time considering this issue.

Why do you ask?

Most likely, you hope to reduce app development costs by:

  • Using existing HTML5/Javascript development skills
  • Targetting multiple platforms without writing multiple apps from scratch
  • Not having to maintain multiple codebases in the future

Reasons may also include:

  • HTML5/Javascript development perceived as "easier" than native platform development
  • Avoiding payment of developer programme registration fees
  • Avoiding appstore content restrictions (gambling etc)
  • Avoiding purchase of development hardware (e.g. Mac for iPhone development)

Definitions

Let's establish exactly what we mean by each of the three approaches mentioned:

Native
An app that is installed on a device, usually from its app store (although can sometimes be sideloaded). For the purposes of this discussion, the UI of a native app does not usually consist of a full-screen webview only.

Mobile web
This can in fact be any web page at all, however for this discussion let's consider a single-page web app which attempts to imitate the look and feel of a native app. It is not a native app, it runs in the device's browser.

Hybrid
Hybrid app instanceof native app.

Most people probably understand a hybrid app to be a single-page mobile web app (again most likely imitating the look and feel of a native app), but packaged as a native app with access to native services (à la Phonegap).

However there is in fact a spectrum between the Phonegap model and fully native which I'll come to later.

Mobile web

Technical restrictions
Let's first list some technical restrictions on mobile web apps which could in themselves be deal-breakers depending on what you're doing:

  • HTML/canvas UI only
  • No access to certain device events and services (these are widely documented)
  • Cannot be listed in app stores (affecting discoverability)
  • Can become full screen and have homescreen icon on iOS, however this is an unusual and unfamiliar experience for most users

If you can live with all the above, then read on for more about the challenges of single-page native-style web apps. However this section wouldn't be complete without reference to the FT app.

Financial Times
The FT web app is a famous example of this style of app. Here's an interesting feature from the UK Guardian newspaper about it.

It's certainly a remarkable feat of engineering. Note that it is currently still only available on iOS only -- this tells me that they are finding that resolving the challenges of advanced cross-browser development to be very difficult indeed.

Single-page native-style web apps

This section applies to both mobile web and Phonegap-style apps.

Native-style look and feel within a web app is usually achieved with a framework such as Sencha Touch which provides a suite of UI components for you to use.

Such frameworks are fine for very simple UIs. However they lack flexibility. You won't be able to implement any native app design using Sencha, you'll need to adapt your design to what the framework can accommodate.

The main way in which these frameworks suffer is in trying to emulate the platform's own UI intricacies. That nice little bouncing effect you get when you've scrolled to the end of a list on the iPhone? Your framework needs to emulate that in Javascript. It's impossible to recreate it completely, it will be prone to slow down, and your users will be stuck in the the "uncanny valley" of an app which looks sort-of like native, but clearly isn't, and a non-technical user won't be able to put their finger on exactly why.

The "HTML5/Javascript is easy" myth

Device fragmentation within web browsers is rife, and when you get beyond the most basic HTML and CSS you'll notice things don't quite work as you'd expect. You might find yourself spending more time solving fiddly UI issues than you'd have saved doing it natively twice over. If you're going native, note that native app webviews are not the same as device browsers and have their own fragmentation issues.

And as your app gets more functionally complex, you'll find that you need more than basic jquery skills to keep your Javascript clean and maintainable.

That said, it's perfectly possible to create simple, functional apps pretty quickly with this approach. But it's pretty obvious when an app is doing it.

Further along the spectrum

So, we want a better UX than Phonegap-style apps can offer, without writing absolutely everything from scratch multiple times. What can we do?

Share non-UI code

There are a range of techniques available for sharing business logic across multiple native platforms. Google have launched J2ObjC which translates Java into Objective-C. With careful factoring of code, a Java library could be used on both Android and iOS.

Libraries such as Calatrava and Kirin allow codebases written in Javascript (and therefore anything that can be compiled to Javascript) to be manipulated from native code. Disclaimer: I work for Future Platforms who created Kirin; we have had great success using it on iOS with Javascript generated from Java with GWT, with Java code also being run natively on Android.

Use webviews... where appropriate

Full screen webviews have a lot of work to do to be able to imitate screen transitions and bounce effects. But a webview inside native app chrome can be indistinguishable from native.

There are standard and well documented methods for native apps and webviews to communicate.

Lists and tables can work particularly well when done in this way, however text entry is an example of something best handled natively (for full control over keyboard).

In summary

The approach that's right for you depends on how complicated your app is, and what level of UI polish you'll be satisfied with.

My motto: use webviews wherever you can, but make sure your users can't tell.

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