2015: Native App Development is Dead in the Enterprise

With Gartner results showing that in 2014 mobile and tablet sales equated to approximately 2.4 billion unit sales compared to 318 million PCs and with an ever increasing proliferation of mobile devices, for many enterprise level organisations developing an effective mobile strategy continues to be one of their biggest challenges.

So what questions are organisations currently asking themselves when devising a strategy for a successful mobile presence?

Native vs Responsive

There has been a long standing argument between the value of building native applications specific for a device such as an iPhone or Android vs. the mobile web i.e. responsive web sites that work across all devices.

The nirvana is that developers wouldn’t have to worry about devices at all and that there would be a solution to write an application once, for it to cover all use cases and work on all devices be it in the guise of a native app or a website. Unfortunately this doesn’t yet exist and Facebook’s attempt at doing this via HTML5 was followed by a rapid backtrack that was well publicised.

There are obvious pros and cons to both (you can read David’s article here for some great insight into why responsive web design is a great strategy). Native applications give you more flexibility when accessing a smartphone's features (such as the accelerometer) and there is the obvious advantage of offline browsing. However, native applications are only built for a specific device resulting in you having to build multiple applications; development costs and ongoing maintenance escalate as a result. Responsive websites on the other hand can be built once and work on most devices (if tested properly) providing a far greater reach for less development cost. But offline browsing is not easy and user experience can often be hindered by the limitations of HTML.

At the moment there are use cases for both that solve separate concerns. If you have a complex set of requirements you may not be able to avoid the need to have to build both a website and a native application. It is common place for enterprise companies to have many desktop applications each with 3-4 mobile applications to support them.

Enterprise strategies differ from company to company. A fine example is The Times newspaper. They have focussed more on the optimum interactive experience of their native applications for both Apple and Android tablets, with separate editorial teams dedicated to each device. The website, on the other hand, is not responsive. They’ve not even bothered to redirect to an m.site, instead just displaying the desktop site on a mobile with a link to download the app from the app store.

In contrast to The Times, the Guardian has opted for a great adaptive/responsive website detailed in David’s aforementioned article from October 2013.

So is there a happy medium?

Cross Platform Tools

To tackle this problem, there are tools in the market that facilitate cross-platform mobile development such as Phonegap and Titanium. These allow you to build apps using Javascript and Web Technologies, and deploy them to  multiple marketplaces in the guise of native apps, across multiple platforms. The advantages on the surface are obvious - you get access to native features that are not available to web browsers but you also only have to write and maintain one code base. If only it was that simple.

There is a great blog highlighting the comparison and the weakness of both Phonegap and Titanium by Kevin Whinnery here.

Other cross-platforms also exist. Another blog by Kevin Whinnery’s former colleague, Matt Schmulen provides details on the options and how they fit into the current mobile ecosystem where there is an ever increasing demand in the Enterprise.

These frameworks include:

  • PhoneGap/Cordova (HTML/JavaScript)
  • Titanium/Appcelerator (JavaScript)
  • Mono/Xamarin (C#)
  • Rhodes (Ruby)
  • Kony (JavaScript formerly Lua)

Our experience of these cross-platform mobile development tools is that you simply cannot replicate the native app experience. We have experimented with these tools before, an example being the build of the mobile applications for our BMW project using Phonegap. We found that the iPhone version of the app was great. However, getting an optimum experience on Android took a huge amount of effort in optimisation and testing to get it close (but still not close enough) to a native experience.

So what does the future hold?

Native App Development Is Dead in the Enterprise

This is a bold statement that will take some time to become completely true. However, 2015 is going to be the dawn of a new era of technology that will replace existing cross-platform tools such as Phonegap and Titanium with a much better offering that will finally succeed where Phonegap and Titanium have largely failed. This will be the beginning of the end of enterprises building responsive sites with multiple native applications to compliment them.

Responsive websites, with the help of new technology will form the basis of the code for native applications without hindering user experience. The applications will be fast and responsive, and there will be a single code base with very little device specific code.

What does this mean? Software companies like Red Badger that currently focus on the enterprise web (i.e. responsive web sites and not native applications) will also be able to deliver great native applications without a great deal of additional effort or the need to hire native app developers. Native application agencies are going to have to adapt and re-skill their employees in order to keep up, or face the consequences of withering into eventual obscurity. The winners will be the enterprise companies. They will have options available to them to  build great experiences across web and native applications on multiple devices with close to a single code base. This means fewer applications, less maintenance, lower development costs and happier customers.

This will ultimately kill the question: “should I build native or responsive?”. Why choose when you can have it all?!

P.S. Where’s my proof you may ask? Watch this space.

UPDATE 2015/02/08: On 28th January, Facebook announced React Native at React Conf. React Native is a game changer and already answers the predictions made in this blog. You can view all of the videos from the conference here.