Mobile apps: Do not forget about HTML5!

Earlier this week, LinkedIn released updates to its app across Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Usually, this wouldn’t be news. Apps get updated all the time. But it mattered because the new apps have gone from being hybrid HTML5 apps, designed to work across a wide base of mobile devices, to being fully native for specific platforms; a step Facebook also took last summer.

For SMEs considering mobile apps, it’s always worth looking at what the major players are doing in this space. In the past, the perception has been that building a hybrid app will be the most affordable way to develop apps across a range of devices and operating systems. While this may be true for a very basic kind of app, the second companies start wanting a hybrid app to behave like a native app they will find their development budgets soaring to try and get features working across platforms and the user experience diminish.

While HTML5 holds a lot of promise, it isn’t ready for immersive apps yet. At the moment, there isn’t enough support out there for HTML5 and because of this, there are limitations. Trying to replicate loading spinners, page transitions and smooth scrolling will end up eating into development budget because of the need to try getting it to work with as many phones as possible. 

Unfortunately, HTML5 lacks some of the capabilities, error detection and performance tools that are available to developers natively designing for a mobile device. With native applications though, it is generally only the talent and capability of the developer that will prevent what is possible.

With over 1.4m apps available across Android and iOS, many of which will never be used, an app isn’t always the best way to get into mobile. For some businesses, building a responsive website (that responds to the screen size from desktop to mobile) or a mobile website is the first step to responding to the rise in mobile usage. Both HTML5 and native have their strengths and weaknesses but it ultimately comes down to what is the problem that needs to be solved.

HTML5 is best when used within a mobile browser or coded to specifically be web based, bypassing app stores (such as the FT tablet edition). Both Facebook and LinkedIn use HTML5 for their mobile websites and issues arose when they tried using the same technology for their apps. The LinkedIn app wasn’t limited by the capabilities of the mobile web, it was hindered because tools and languages that have been designed to build web pages are now being used to build applications and most of the time they are not fit for purpose.

The debate of web apps versus native apps was, in part, started by lazy web developers who felt threatened by a new technology, written in a language they didn?t know when the App Store launched. It was another list to appear in, or get to the top of but they didn’t want to retrain in order to get their content or idea onto a mobile device.

Instead of building a mobile website and using the devices browser, they tried to make the tools and languages they already knew work in a way they were never intended to.

If you are wanting to keep costs down, start with a mobile or responsive website. This will cover as many users as possible and ensure when people search for your company, they will get a good experience. 

If you are wanting to add a more immersive experience, or to deliver powerful tools that make use of a smartphone?s hardware, native is the best route to take. The hybrid approach is a little like a cheap burger. There’s loads of ingredients and you can never really be sure what it’ll contain.

Ben Reed is head of iOS at Mubaloo.

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