HTML5 vs. Native Mobile App Development

Mobile apps and HTML5 are two of the hottest technologies right now, and there’s plenty of overlap. Web apps run in mobile browsers and can also be re-packaged as native apps on the various mobile platforms. With the wide range of platforms to support, combined with the sheer power of mobile browsers, developers are turning to HTML5 as a “write one, run many” solution. But is it really viable? There are still compelling reasons to go native, and clearly, many developers are indeed going that route.

  1. We can divide mobile functionality into two dimensions: the experience of the app itself, and the way it hooks into the device’s ecosystem, e.g. for Android, this would be features like widgets and notifications. In terms of app experience, native apps can do more.

  2. It’s true that many in-app features are simply beyond reach for an HTML5 app. No matter how hot your web skills are, if your app is stuck in a sandbox with no camera API, it won’t be taking snaps anytime soon! Making a hybrid – native plus web – app is hardly an ideal solution. It adds complexity and applies only to web apps wrapped as native apps, rather than traditional websites accessed from a mobile browser. But it mightn’t be necessary for long. Web standards are evolving rapidly, and modern mobile browsers are keeping pace. Offline storage, geolocation, canvas graphics, and video/audio playback all enjoy widespread support among modern smarpthones, for example. Even camera is starting to be supported — as of Android 3.1, it’s possible to capture photos and videos using web standards. And the latest iOS browser supports WebSocket for 2-way streaming, as well as device orientation detection.
    Overall, mobile is evolving. But the web is also evolving, and fast. Among desktop browsers alone, there are five major browser vendors evolving standards and adding features at lightning pace. While it’s not a trivial process to port these features to mobile, many of them have already made their way into the mobile browsers.
    Native is a fast-moving target, but the web is closing the gap.

  3. Native apps use robust programming languages (e.g. Java, Objective C, C++) which were designed for complex application development and have a proven track record. The APIs were designed ground-up to support the platform at hand. You can easily debug apps in desktop emulators which provide a close representation of the target device.
    What makes web development particularly troublesome is the huge diversity of browsers and runtimes. When your app runs, it’s no guarantee feature X will be available. And even if it is, how will the browser implement it? Standards are open to interpretation. On the other hand Web is often easier to develop, especially if targeting multiple devices.

  4. One of the defining features of any platform is its look and feel. Users come to expect controls to be presented consistently and manipulated in the same way. There are certain idioms which vary from platform to platform, e.g. what happens when the user performs a “long hold” (keep touching an element for several seconds)? Platforms have standard idioms for such things, and you can’t satisfy them all with a single HTML5 app.
    Furthermore, platform look-and-feel is orchestrated by the platform’s native software library, whose widgets encapsulate the kind of look and feel users expect. You get a lot of the expected look-and-feel “for free” just by using the native toolkit.

  5. App distribution mechanisms, like Android’s Market and Apple’s App Store, have been overwhelmingly popular in recent years and are a major driving force for the entire mobile industry. Any developer can submit their native app to the marketplace, where users can discover it through a combination of browsing, searching, and getting recommendations. Not only that, but if you’ve done your job right, the glowing ratings and comments will convince users to hit the all-important install button.

It would be nice to declare a winner here, but right now, there is no clear winner. Some apps are best suited for native and some are best suited for the web. The web stack arguably has more momentum, but in terms of capabilities and execution qualities, native apps are moving fast too. And unless there comes a time when web technologies are a first-class citizen on the majority of mobile OSs, native will always be an important consideration.