Mobile App Developers Face Tough Choices on Mobility, Web

When a programmer starts looking at mobile application development, one of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to go native versus Web technology.

Although Objective-C is key for building native iOS apps, Java for Android and BlackBerry, and C# and Visual Studio tools for Windows Phone, the opportunity to build mobile apps with Web-standard technologies is making many developers think about the Web as a first option. HTML5 and JavaScript have essentially changed the game.

Indeed, Forrester Research issued a January 2012 report on the subject, titled "Building Mobile Apps? Start With Web; Move to Hybrid." In the report, Forrester identifies not two options–native versus Web–but four: native, hybrid (native code with HTML and JavaScript), mobile middleware platforms, and a straight Web technologies approach with HTML5 and JavaScript.

"I don’t think there is going to be a clear winner in the native versus Web debate, but different workloads will trend toward one technology or the other," Jeffrey Hammond, the principal author of the Forrester report, told eWEEK. "For example, I still see most customer-facing apps written in native code, but I’m also seeing a lot of B2E business-to-employee apps written with a hybrid style or on top of middleware. Likewise, device-centric workloads tend toward native code, while multichannel services (e.g. social networking, content) are moving toward Web and a hybrid style."

"With the gap between native and Web shrinking dramatically, applications that share a common, Web-standards-based code base are appealing and also a very real option," said Dylan Schiemann, CEO of SitePen and co-creator of the Dojo Toolkit JavaScript library. "Creating apps for each native platform, as well as the desktop Web, all with disparate technologies, is not my idea of fun, especially now that we are equipped with HTML5 and open-Web technologies like Dojo Mobile, Wink Toolkit, Maqetta and PhoneGap to create extraordinary mobile application experiences. By clearly separating data from user experience, it’s possible to more efficiently create applications that target the platforms of today and tomorrow."

On the one hand, you get faster code execution with native code versus JavaScript. However, Web apps cost less to port to multiple platforms. Also, Web apps are easy to change and give developers more control over their content.

Plus, it’s easier to find developers skilled in Web technologies rather than in native code. And the Web-standard technologies tend to be less of an intellectual property risk, potentially limiting exposure to lawsuits, the Forrester report said.

Perhaps the most recent example of a major player pushing Web technology as the way to go for mobile development is Mozilla, which on Feb. 23 announced that the Mozilla Marketplace would open for developers to submit Web apps at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. By building on open-Web technologies like HTML5 and Mozilla-proposed APIs, the Mozilla Marketplace will enable developers to write one app that runs across devices and platforms. As part of its mission to keep the Web open and put people in control of their Web experience, Mozilla is enabling users to buy apps once and use them on any HTML5-enabled device.

"We are enabling the Web to be the marketplace, giving developers the opportunity to play on the biggest playing field imaginable," said Todd Simpson, Mozilla’s chief of innovation, in a statement. "By building the missing pieces, Mozilla is now unlocking the potential of the Web to be the platform for creating and consuming content everywhere."

In addition, Mozilla indicated it is working on a smartphone that will run apps on the phone’s browser. These smartphone plans are tied to the company’s "Boot to Gecko" project, which is an effort to create a Web-based mobile operating system. Mozilla’s plans would mean that developers adept in standard Web technologies such as JavaScript and HTML5 would be equipped to build apps for the Mozilla phone.

However, regarding Mozilla’s plans, Forrester’s Hammond said, "They are competing for airtime in a very busy market; I’m not sure how successful they will be in getting it."

Yet, "With Mozilla’s mobile OS moving forward, it reaffirms that the best option for developers is to have a vast array of choice, from purely native to hybrid Web/native to pure Web solutions," SitePen’s Schiemann said. "With this variety, developers will need to sort through those choices and decide what will help them most effectively deliver high-quality apps and sites for their users that will be manageable now and sustainable over time."

To read the original eWeek article, click here: Mobile App Development: Web or Native, That Is the Question