Developing Mobile Web Apps, When Why and How

The following is an excerpt from the Toptal blog. Read the full post here.

There are 6.8 billion people on the planet, 5.1 billion of whom own a cell phone (source). And today, an ever-growing percentage of these devices are smartphones. According to a recent Pew Research Center Study, the number of users accessing the Internet on their smartphones has more than doubled in the past 5 years, as has the number of users downloading and using mobile apps. Of those who use the Internet or email on their phones, more than a third go online primarily through their handheld devices.

Indeed, mobile computing is becoming increasingly ubiquitous… and it’s awesome.

Except, of course, when it’s not.

As a mobile device user, few things are as frustrating and difficult to fat-finger-navigate as a poorly designed mobile web or native app.

And as a mobile app developer, few things can be as intensely irritating as striving to support as wide a range of mobile clients as possible, each of which has its own frustrating set of idiosyncrasies. Whether you choose to develop a mobile web, native, or hybrid app, the quest to support multiple mobile browsersmore-exotic devices, and platforms can be quite a gut wrenching experience indeed.

Of course, not every developer today needs to worry about supporting mobile clients. But the increasingly omnipresent nature of mobile devices and applications strongly suggests that those who don’t need to support mobile clients today will more than likely need to do so in the not-too-distant future. So if you’re not already thinking about mobile app development, you probably should be.

Mobile app: Web vs. native vs. hybrid (help me choose!)

As is true with most technology selections, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the type of mobile app to develop. There are numerous web app best practices to consider, not all of which are technical. Who is your target audience? Are they more likely to prefer a mobile web or a native app? What development resources do you have and which mobile technologies are they most familiar with? What is the licensing and sales model that you’re envisioning for your product?

Generally speaking (although there are always exceptions), the mobile web route is faster and cheaper than the native app route, especially when the objective is to support a wide range of devices. Conversely, there may be capabilities native to the mobile device (such as the movement sensor and so on) that are essential to your app, but which are only accessible via a native app (which would therefore make the mobile web app choice a non-starter for you).

And beyond the web vs. native question, a hybrid app may be the right answer for you, depending on your requirements and resource constraints. Hybrid apps, like native apps, run on the device itself (as opposed to inside a browser), but are written with web technologies (HTML5, CSS and JavaScript). More specifically, hybrid apps run inside a native container, and leverage the device’s browser engine (but not the browser) to render the HTML and process the JavaScript locally. A web-to-native abstraction layer enables access to device capabilities that are not accessible in mobile web applications, such as the accelerometer, camera, and local storage.

But whatever choice you make – whether it be mobile web, native or hybrid app – be careful to adequately research and confirm your assumptions. As an example for the purposes of this mobile web app development tutorial, you may have decided to develop a native app for e-commerce to sell your products, but according to Hubspot, 73% of smartphone users say they use the mobile web more than native apps to do their shopping… so you may have bet on the wrong horse.

And then, of course, there are the practical considerations of time and budget. As one of my favorite sayings goes, “faster, better, cheaper… pick any two”. While time-to-market and cost constraints are of paramount importance in web application development, it’s crucial not to compromise too heavily on quality in the process. It’s quite difficult to recover the confidence of a user who has had a bad first experience.

Indeed, mobile web, native, and hybrid apps are all radically different beasts, each with their own unique set of benefits and challenges. This development tutorial specifically focuses on methodologies and tools to employ, and pitfalls to avoid, in the development of highly functional, intuitive, and easy-to-use mobile web applications.

 

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