I've recently read PPK's article titled "Web vs. native: let’s concede defeat". I've also seen countless "web vs. native" debates in forms of either presentations or articles. Some of them claiming native is a sure winner, some that web is superior... I want to show how fruitless the debate really is and how you – as a developer – should decide (or help your boss decide).
Do you see what I'm getting at? I might surprise you, because I think they are all right. In a way. Eventually you can learn to live with specifics and restrictions of any platform (be it language disabilities, tools failing and what not). If you can have a specialist for all those platforms then go ahead and build purely native apps and a separate website. You will probably make some common API that incorporates most of the logic and develop all GUI in almost complete separation. And that is OK! It really is. If, however, you are not fortunate enough to have a department for each platform, you will probably choose something else.
And that is my point. There is no single, better way to build mobile apps. There should be no war here. There are simply some development strategies to choose from and you need to know what are the strong points of each one.
First let's ask – what is a good user experience? It's when user expectations are met. When you open a Facebook application do you expect something in particular? You probably expect your feed will be there, you can find your friends there... But do you expect a button to look in any particular way on any given platform? No. You expect the app too look like Facebook. You expect Twitter app to look like Twitter...
Almost any big application has it's own user experience. Almost all game-apps have a different layout and different interactions and such. In fact for many apps the more you differentiate the better. For example in Fruit Ninja you don't push buttons – you slash them. It might not be what users expect at first but it does create a great user experience once it is discovered. It's just immersive and simply fun.
Take any of your two favorite apps. Do they look the same?
Native vs. web debate is usually understood as two options:
But this is oversimplification. For example many game-apps are written in C/C++ and talk to some drawing API like OpenGL. Other kinds of apps can use "native" API/SDK for building application GUI. I use "native" in quotes because all big platforms have at least two types of development kits, e.g. for Android you have Android SDK for standard apps and Android NDK for games and other apps that draw on screen instead of using built in components.
But there are also cross-platform frameworks built on top of "native-drawing" APIs. One such framework is Cocs2d-X. I must add that by drawing API I mean something like OpenGL (or Direct 3D) which allows freely drawing shapes on screen. Shapes that user can interact with in very distinct ways (as aforementioned Fruit Ninja).
With things like asm.js and OpenGL coming to browsers even the differences between purely "native-drawing" apps and "web-native" hybrid might become even more blur on user side. In the end the only difference left might be the tools and the language used. Which is what the end-users cannot care less about.
Confused? You might be if you only hear about web vs. native war over and over again.
You might have heard that building hybrid applications is bad because you add an extra layer. The truth is that every application you've used in the last 5 years has layers and talks to other layers. If you make apps for many platforms you have to have some extra layer. Otherwise you would have to keep completely separate code for each platform... Why not go deeper – ditch the system, and use an assembler to talk to devices directly. Go for it. You will have superior performance...
Note that if you build application for each platform then you will build separate apps that only look similar. That would be bad in many ways.
Todays' applications are always built on top of something. Cross platform applications always have an extra layer or two to be able to actually be cross platform.
By now I hope that you can see that you need some kind of common ground when you are building cross-platform applications. Applications can be cross-platform in terms of coding, testing and end-user experience. The question if your app should be cross-platform in any of this ways might just be a key to success. It is also tightly coupled with a question of choosing the right development strategy and the base framework.
Let me help you just a bit and give you some questions to answer:
You might ask – what about web-native hybrid applications? Well if you want to be cross-platform, and you want to differentiate a bit from others, and want to distribute actual apps (that users have on their home screen), then I would say hybrid is your answer. As mentioned before – mobile web is maybe not ready for 3D games or intensive 2D games... yet. I say web-native hybrids will be ready for almost anything by 2020.
Remember. You users don't care what you use. They care about experience, quality and new features. Give them that based on your abilities and restrictions. Migrate as much as possible to server if you cannot decide upfront.