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Monday, January 24, 2011

Mobile Apps Development: Native vs. Web

When it comes to start developing apps for mobile devices, a difficult question is immediately raised: which platform should we select? Indeed, the mobile landscape is the scene a fierce fight between major players (like Microsoft, RIM, Apple, and Google) or challengers (like HP and Nokia). Each of these platforms comes with its own way of developing apps; they often use different languages and SDKs, and always have different APIs.

There is obviously no unique answer to the question. It depends on a lot of factors.

The way you interpret those factors depends on your intent. Are you an individual who wants to invest time on its spare time to build skills in a new technology? Are you a software architect who must make a technical choice for a specific project? Are you an enterprise that must set architecture principles impacting all developments for the coming years?

An individual will take into account its personal taste; the software architect will consider the specific requirements of the project; while an enterprise will have more strategic considerations.

Choice factors

There are factors that are typical when you make a technology choice, like cost, performance, availability of technical resources (it might be easier to find Java developers than Objective-C developers), integration with the existing architecture, etc.

Then, there are factors that are typical to the mobile apps development landscape. Mobile appshave very specific characteristics that traditional applications don’t have:

  • Limited resources
  • Limited or varying connectivity
  • Specific hardware: touch screen, camera, GPS, accelerometer, NFC…
  • Specific services: contacts, calendar, SMS…

These bring additional constraints you have to take into account when choosing a technology.

Mobile platforms diversity [Max Katz]

Two alternatives

When it comes to make a decision there are two main tracks you can take, either you go for native development, or you go for web based development. Each track comes with its own advantages and drawbacks, but the gap becomes smaller, especially since the raise of HTML5 techniques opens the door to web apps that can compete with native ones.

Both solutions share the following advantages: easy deployment, fast time to market, good user experience, local storage, off-line mode…

Advantages of native development (and drawbacks of web development) are: integration with device services and hardware (though some services might be available through HTML5, like location); and best performances.

Advantages of web development (and drawbacks of native development) are: only one set of skills to address all platforms (no fragmentation: pretty much all mobile platforms now (will) support HTML5), re-use of existing enterprise connectivity infrastructure, no overload of device apps collection.

So, it will depend on the kind of requirements your application will have. You will choose the native track for: games, access to device features, high performance, rich graphics, single platform target, and – in some cases – off-line mode. You will choose the web track for everything else, especially if supporting multiple platforms or enterprise connectivity is important.

This section is based on a presentation by Max Katz at Devoxx 2010:
“Mobile Development Choices: Native Apps vs. Web Apps”

The third way

Since very recently, a third way is taking shape in the form of the Adobe Flex SDK. It provides a common stack for all platforms. Three alternatives can be chosen for the distribution: either Flash web applications, similar if not identical to applications running on personal computers; or Flash applications deployed locally; or by cross-compiling to a native app. Note however that, for iOS, only the latter is possible, due to Apple boycott of Flash.

Mobile applications based on Flex might gather the advantages of both native and web based development, but this technology is very recent in the mobile landscape, and not yet finalized for all platforms. Future will tell us if it’s a viable alternative.

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