A hybrid app is a way to build an app in one coding language that functions across multiple platforms (for example, an app that can be deployed to both iPhone and Android devices). As smartphones have overtaken computers, laptops, and tablets as the number one way people access digital information, solutions have sprung up to make building a mobile app more efficient. Though relatively new on the scene, hybrid mobile apps have become a popular option for app development.
What is a hybrid app?
A hybrid app is an app created to run on multiple platforms while being written in a single codebase. Instead of rewriting apps within each operating system’s own language, developers can create one app that can be downloaded from multiple app stores. Hybrid apps use coding languages combined with integrations and plugins to achieve their functionality. To provide some context, let’s consider how they are different from native apps.
Hybrid App vs. Native App
Native App Explained
Consider a commonly used navigation app on most people’s phones: Waze. This is what is known as a “native app.” If two users pull up Waze side by side on Android and iOS phones, the app will look nearly identical on both phones. The way users enter a destination, track accident reports, and see upcoming directions is nearly identical.
However, these two apps were developed with different coding languages that drive the features behind each app, with one coding language specific to Android (Kotlin/Java) and another for iOS ( Swift/Objective-C). Developers had to create two versions of the same app specific to the Android and iOS platforms, making Waze a native app. When Waze accesses GPS to give a user directions, it’s doing so directly with the phone’s hardware, with no layers between them.
Hybrid App Explained
A hybrid app is the opposite – where developers use one coding language to create two different apps that run on these different platforms. An example of this is Uber. Uber is built with one codebase. So no matter what OS is on a user’s phone, they will download the same Uber app from their respective app store. The code that drives the features held within the app is the same, regardless of what device is running that app.
Hybrid App vs. Progressive Web App
Progressive Web App Explained
A progressive web app is a third option, which deserves its own mention and delineation from native apps and hybrid apps. Progressive web apps (PWAs) are websites that function like apps. This is a newer technology, where an ‘app-like experience’ is running in the user’s web browser. It can access the device’s hardware (microphone, camera, location) but no app file needed to be downloaded (no App Store).
The Starbucks app is a great example of a PWA. Going to their website to order a peppermint mocha will look very similar to how a thirsty user would place the order on their native app that is accessible via the App Store; Starbucks has both a PWA and a native app. It creates a recognizable UX experience with a similar UI design. So even if a user always orders from Starbucks on their native iPhone app, then orders for the first time on the web, they’ll have an intuitive understanding of how to add an extra shot to their latte.
Where PWAs can be accessed outside of app stores, hybrid apps (and their predecessor, native apps) are only hosted on the app store.
Why Build a Hybrid App?
Depending on your goals, a hybrid mobile app could be the best solution for your development needs. Particularly if speed and cost are at the forefront of your mind. A major benefit to using one cross-platform language to design the app is it can be released to the market quicker than building two native apps, which means it will be less costly in terms of development hours.
Pros of Hybrid Apps
- Less Development Time: As mentioned above, if your goal is to have your app be available for both iPhones and Androids, cutting out the need to develop two app code-bases will reduce development time. If you have a great idea that is market-ready and you’re itching to get it out on the app store, cross-platform frameworks are the quickest way to bring a product to life and ready for the Google Play and Apple App Stores.
- Lower Cost: Less development time = fewer billable hours. As long as hybrid apps take fewer hours to create (which they currently do), they will remain cheaper than building native apps.
- Wider Audience: Sometimes for budget reasons, apps are rolled out to one platform a long time before they’re rolled out to a second. Naturally, this will limit the reach of an app as users cannot download the app while they’re waiting for it to be made available to their phones’ operating system.
- Easier Bug Fixes and Maintenance: Hybrid apps let you send out one patch and bug fix to repair issues across all devices. This is easier than solving the problem for say iOS first and then solving the problem a second time for Android.
- Scalability: Hybrid apps can scale quicker as it’s easier to build in new features. When Waze – a native app – created a feature that allowed drivers to view the app on their dashboard, they were integrated with Android Auto in August 2018 but didn’t offer that same feature for iOS users until over one month later when it offered Apple CarPlay support.
Cons of Hybrid Apps
- Operating Slower: Native apps are seen as “closer to the metal” as they can access a phone’s native features, like GPS and audio. It’s because they’re built within Google or Apple’s own coding languages. This can yield overall better performance and speed. Though hybrid app coding languages have come a long way, some apps built with a hybrid codebase operate slower than native apps.
- Longer Testing Process: A hybrid app has to get the greenlight for multiple platforms, not just one. This means a longer testing process to make sure coding bug-fixes are rolled out to all platforms and the apps are as close to perfect as possible.
- Playing Catch up to Platform Updates: If Google or Apple updates their software, the companies roll out “Software Development Kits,” which let developers know how to respectively update apps written in those languages. As hybrid apps are written in a third-party language, it can take developers longer to figure out how to play catch-up to those software updates and update a hybrid app to be compatible.
- Less Complex Functionality: If you have a complex app that requires high performance or one that relies heavily on 3D graphics and design, then it could be worth the time to forgo hybrid apps, as they don’t compete as well in this category as native apps.
5 Best Examples of a Hybrid App
Many companies have either started as or transitioned into hybrid apps. Most users don’t realize that the apps they use the most are probably hybrid. Below are 5 examples of hybrid apps:
Instagram started as one of the first major online products that was purely built as a native app, only for mobile use. However, as it was brought into the Facebook ecosystem and the popularity of Instagram grew, so did the need for it to be accessible on the web and to scale quickly. Facebook re-wrote Instagram to be built in React Native, the hybrid app coding language it invented.
The popular chat network for gamers has always been built as a hybrid app. The developers behind the brand prioritized the fast implementation of UI components and the speediness of over-the-air patches for quick fixes, which was provided by using a single codebase.
3. BMW App
It was easier for BMW’s mobile team to develop the iOS version of their vehicle companion app. Eventually, the Android version’s features were far behind iOS and BMW needed to play catch-up to make their products similar. They switched to Flutter, Google’s cross-platform framework. By focusing all their efforts on one app, the development team was able to implement the same features to all users faster than retooling both apps separately.
Social media giant Twitter is a big reason why so many businesses switched to hybrid apps. The platform handles nearly 200 million active users each day. The app used to be plagued by performance issues, but when they switched to a hybrid app and could more quickly push through bug fixes, many of those issues disappeared.
When the brains behind the website NerdWallet wanted to shake off their “website-first” persona, they wanted a market-ready app and they wanted it fast. After hitting roadblocks with exploring native codebases, the developers opted for a cross-platform language to reduce friction and time spent in development.
There is no “one right answer” for how to build an app. A good starting place though is considering a hybrid app. Especially if you’re building an MVP, a hybrid app is a great way to get faster feedback for your app and speed through inevitable bug patches. Of course, a hybrid app isn’t the right answer for everyone. But it’s definitely worth a look!
Curious to learn more about if a hybrid app is right for your app idea? Let’s talk about it!
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