Responsive, Native, or Hybrid: Which Mobile App Approach is Right For You?

By | November 17, 2014

If there’s one thing the mobile world isn’t lacking, it’s variety. If you can dream it, there’s probably an app for that. Likewise, the number of ways to build apps seems endless. Responsive sites, hybrid and native apps are the most popular mobile solutions, but what do they each entail? Let’s find out:

Responsive

mobile app One.org

Responsive site One.org

Overview
Responsive websites aren’t actually apps. They’re essentially websites optimized for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. They can look similar to mobile apps, but are loaded in the user’s web browser.

Pros
Responsive sites are much cheaper and faster to build than native and hybrid apps. Their development lies well within the skill set of most web designers. For organizations who use website and blog publishing tools such as WordPress, many themes (both free and paid) offer built-in responsive capabilities.

Cons
Responsive sites are limited in terms of functionality. They cannot interact with the underlying features of a device like native apps can, which means enabling a camera or tapping into the GPS of the device is not possible. Additionally, you can’t put responsive sites on mobile app stores and users will need an internet connection in order to view them.

Good For
Despite their restrictions, responsive sites definitely have their place in the market. If your goal is to simply display content clearly on mobile devices, a responsive site will fit the bill. The responsive One.org site (pictured above) is an excellent example of responsive at its best. The charity site doesn’t require any special features, but instead focuses on conveying information in an easy-to-read format.

Native

Native Mobile App Wunderlist

Native Mobile App Wunderlist

Overview
Device-specific applications, or native apps, are what we as device users are most accustomed to. From Angry Birds to Facebook, native apps are the preferred choice of big name companies with big budget.

Pros
Unlike hybrid and responsive, native apps can tap into a full range of device features and since they’re specially designed for each device, they tend to offer a better overall UX. And because native apps are installed directly onto a device, they perform better than their responsive counterparts and don’t necessarily require an internet or data connection.

Cons
Developing native applications for all the major mobile operating systems can be costly and time consuming. Instead of using web developers, you’ll need dedicated mobile developers and testers if you want a quality app. Organizations will also need to factor in maintenance costs into the budget, and it’s worth noting that users can be slow to install updates, however critical they may be.

Good For
If have a big budget, your app is your product, or you really need to offer a high caliber UX, you’ll probably want to go native. Organization app Wunderlist made the jump from cross-platform to native app in 2012. According to an interview with TechCrunch, CEO Christian Reber said it was all about achieving “the last five percent [of improvement].”

Hybrid

Hybrid Mobile App Wikipedia

Hybrid Mobile App Wikipedia

Overview
Lying somewhere responsive and native apps, hybrid apps have been described as the mule of the app world – not quite a horse, and not quite a donkey. Hybrid mobile apps are built using web technology and are then wrapped with platform-specific code.

Pros
Hybrids are faster to develop than native apps and can also be packaged and placed onto an app store. When designed and developed well, they can offer a near-native user experience and tap into a broader range of device features than responsive sites.

Cons
Hybrid app will never match their native counterparts in terms of performance and experience. They also still require the overhead of going through the app approval process.

Good For
Hybrid apps are a quick go-to solution for small and lean organizations who really need their app available in mobile app stores whether it’s to gain exposure, gain ad revenue, or be first to market.

Making the Decision

Time and money are always the two limiting factors in the software development world. When thinking about which mobile solution is best suited for your organization, remember to take into account the long term costs in addition to the initial overhead. Finally, adopt a flexible mindset when it comes to mobile – you may only have a budget for a responsive site now, but if things take off it’s more than possible to step up to a hybrid or native mobile apps.

Category: Quality assurance testing Web and software development

About Cheylene Thongkham

Cheylene Thongkham is a London-based technical writer and experienced software tester. She earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2007 and an ISTQB certification in 2010. After working as a web application tester in the US, Cheylene assumed the role of Senior QA Analyst at a FTSE 250 company in London where she oversaw testing for mobile websites, business intelligence, and Oracle databases. She is currently working towards becoming an Oracle Certified Professional.

  • Nils Müller-Sheffer

    Hi Cheylene,

    nice overview. I share your assessment that native apps offer the best user experience, overall.

    However, the statement that with browser based webapps enabling “a camera or tapping into the GPS of the device is not possible” is incorrect. HTML5 enables access to exactly these things like camara, geolocation, local storage or device orientation. That is what all the hype was about …

    For example, see here:
    http://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/getusermedia/intro/

    BR,
    Nils