Hybrid apps – are they better than native? Explanation and examples

By George Fironov ·Subscribe

Did you know that Instagram is a hybrid application? It’s virtually impossible to tell until you learn it, because it works perfectly on both iOS and Android.

In this article, I’ll explain what hybrid apps are, and how they fit in the modern software development ecosystem.

What are hybrid apps?

In the world of commercial (=created by a business to make money) applications there are three big players:

  • Web applications
  • Native mobile applications
  • Hybrid applications

Let’s analyse them all to get the big picture of the modern application development environment.

Web applications

 

When it comes to the biggest players, like Facebook or YouTube, they started out as web applications. Then mobile came around and suddenly, a lot of people didn’t even have computers, they just used their mobile devices to connect to the internet.

That trend continues today, especially with the younger population, or ‘zoomers’, and a big part of the millennial generation as well.

Companies couldn’t ignore that trend, so everybody started going mobile. At the peak of mobile hype, a lot of companies engaged in unnecessary development of mobile apps just for the sake of marking their presence in the mobile app environment. This was largely caused by smart salespeople and marketers, who had to sell software development services, and started convincing every manager that all companies need to have mobile apps.

Nowadays the hype for mobile has died down, and rightfully so. Kids might be hooked to Instagram and Tik Tok, but adults that need professional services or products still look for them in Google, either on their computers, or their mobile devices.

Not just that, but the personal website movement might be coming back in a huge wave. With social media full of crap and manipulative ads, and blockchain technology enabling the sort of connection between websites that the first founders of the Web could only imagine, websites are gaining importance again.

That’s not to say that they ever stopped being important. Marketers in B2B companies all know 

that the main source of inbound leads is their own website with a blog and other types of rich, valuable content.

Building simple websites is easier than ever. If you have money to spend, you can just buy a premium Wix or WordPress membership, use a template, and voila. Your website is ready.

You can also hire a web developer to build a completely custom site. Or buy a template, learn a bit of HTML and CSS, and just insert your own content into the template.

Every major programming language has a framework for web application development. The most popular examples include Rails for Ruby, Laravel for PHP, and Django for Python. There’s also Javascript, which went from a small tool for adding interactivity to websites, to a general-purpose programming language which boasts the most important web development frameworks today: Angular, Node, React, Vue, and more.

Native mobile applications

 

Mobile applications started gaining traction when the first iPhone hit the market, along with competing Android devices.

But it took a while until the first serious hybrid development frameworks came to be, and they are still a niche. Most developers build apps for the web using web development tools, and apps for mobile using mobile development tools.

Mobile-only development tools are called native. Just like natives in England speak English, native apps in the mobile world ‘speak’ the language of their respective operating system. That is Java for Android, Swift and Objective C for iOS, and .NET on Windows phones (are those even still a thing?).

And that’s pretty much it. Native apps are rendered in the user’s smartphone. Hybrid apps, as you’ll read in the next paragraph, rely on an additional web browser window, that is created in the background in order to put the app on your device. You don’t see it, but it’s there.

That carries several big advantages. When the app is rendered on your smartphone, it works faster, it’s more smooth. If it’s an app that is supposed to be used offline, then there’s really no other way than to use native mobile development tools. Otherwise, users won’t be able to use them if their internet goes awry, and that would go against the whole ‘offline’ thing.

Native applications on a specific system all have a similar look and feel. You’ll notice that iOS apps and Android apps have several differences when it comes to interfaces and application flow. There are a lot of developers that only focus on one system, because it can be costly to create a separate app just to accommodate the other app ecosystem.

You’ve probably had that problem before, where a great app is only available for iOS, but you use an Android smartphone and can’t download it.

These days, the best apps usually have a web version that you can still run on your phone. But when it comes to specialized niche apps, for example apps for music production, a lot of them are only available for iOS. 

Hybrid applications

 

Now we’re moving on to the main star of this article, hybrid apps. Hybrid apps are a combination of web and native mobile apps.

They can be built by using several different tools that allow developers to re-use web application code in mobile apps. 

Another approach is to build web applications that render differently on mobile devices. You open them through a mobile browser, but they look, feel, and operate like normal mobile apps. However, this has more to do with progressive app design than with hybrid application development.

The term ‘hybrid’ typically means apps that are installed on the mobile device as separate apps (so you access them separately, not in a mobile browser). There are several different tools that enable software developers to build apps like this.

These hybrid development tools can work differently, but the core idea is the same: taking web code and repurposing it into a native mobile app, without having to write the whole mobile app from scratch.

Probably the most popular framework for hybrid applications is React Native. Similar frameworks include:

  • Appcelerator
  • Apache Cordova
  • Framework7
  • Flutter
  • Xamarin
  • Electron
  • Ionic

These frameworks use different programming languages, and they enable relatively quick recreation of an app for all ecosystems.

Hybrid applications have several benefits. You can make your app available on all major platforms, but you don’t have to build a different app for each platform. That’s a lot of saved time and money. 

So far, hybrid apps don’t have a big part of the software market. They are niche tools used by only a few of the big players, and by several smaller companies. Let’s see who uses hybrid application development frameworks.

Hybrid application examples

The most popular hybrid application in the world is Instagram. The photo and video sharing application that everybody loves is built using React Native. It works and operates like a native app regardless of the operating system on which you install it. It’s smooth, beautiful, and meets all quality standards of modern application development.

Other popular companies that use React Native are:

  • Intuit – provider of software for managing finances
  • Shopify – the e-commerce cms of choice for millions of online sellers
  • Yahoo and Microsoft – these giants of the IT industry use React Native too

React Native is the most popular hybrid framework, and the next runner-up is Electron.

Electron is used by Slack, the innovative software company that revolutionised the world of chat. 

It’s also used by Close, the creators of one of the world’s most popular CRM solutions for SMB’s.

And that’s kind of it. There are more companies that use hybrid frameworks, but there are few high-profile companies like the ones I mentioned above.

This proves what I mentioned earlier: hybrid application development is still a niche domain. Will it ever become the norm? We’ll have to wait and find out.

Summary

Web apps are the foundation of the application ecosystem. Native applications are the natural counterpart to web apps, and hybrid apps are a mix of both of those worlds.

There are so many different ways to build apps nowadays, with new frameworks and languages constantly being developed, that this article might be outdated soon. 

But, as things stand right now, hybrid applications are still quite rare, and hybrid development is only starting to gain popularity.