monkey app

In the age of the smartphone, applications must go native or evolve into a new beast; the hybrid app.

Everything happens faster in the digital jungle. There, it’s the survival of the fittest and quickest. The mind boggling speed with which the terrain can change is nowhere more obvious than with the effortless, onward march of the app into our lives.

Online banking has been well and truly changed by the arrival of mobile apps. You only have to look at the figures posted by the Netherlands’ Rabobank this month: in 2012 the number of active mobile app users more than doubled. Today, 56% of all the bank’s online transactions take place on a mobile phone. The smartphone, as we all now know, was more of a game changer than anyone could have predicted. Over the last few years banks around the world have entered the mobile arena with their own app (there are even banks that exist only as apps) with varied results.

Way back at the dawn of the web age when ‘dialling-in’ to the Internet could take endless minutes, ‘apps’ were called applications and we didn’t really give them much thought – they were just software we needed to perform basic computer-based tasks, like send emails and create documents. The smartphone suddenly made the web extremely portable and apps shifted from being solely useful tools to mobile sources of information and entertainment. Businesses that wanted to remain relevant could adapt in only two ways; build an app for a specific device – a ‘native app’ – or to create an entirely separate site tailored to mobiles. Although a decent mobile website remains the baseline for what customers expect from brands online, native apps quickly left it behind in terms of popularity. Mostly because mobile websites are difficult to navigate through on small screens, making it far harder than it needs to be for customers to sign-in to online portal’s or find information quickly. Native apps and mobile sites may have co-existed, alone in the digital world forever, if the mobile environment hadn’t been flooded more smartphones and then blown away by the arrival of tablets. The abundance of new devices presented a new set of obstacles for companies to overcome if they wanted to continue to meet customers’ needs.

As we know, many businesses had already invested in building one native app, now they were expected to build more and more. The nature of the ‘native app’ is in its name; native apps are built using tools and programming languages native to one specific device. iOS and Android, for example, each come with their own Software Developer Kit (SDK). Developers, using the SDK for each specific device, must build the app from scratch X amount of times, depending on how many different devices the company wants to make the app available to. Larger organizations, who are working to differentiate themselves through their mobile offerings, cannot afford to ignore customers with less popular handsets, so they must ensure they create an app for every smartphone on the market. This has proved to be a huge drain on budgets; the resources needed to build, maintain and update several different versions of one app across numerous app stores are considerable. Add to that the time it takes to complete the necessary testing and bug fixes, plus the competitiveness of the market and it’s no wonder the search for an alternative solution began.

Enter the hybrid…

Hybrid apps are a combination of mobile-adapted web pages and native app technology. The app is designed like a normal website, but smaller, than wrapped in a container that mimics the functionality of a native app. Hybrids are built only once, with web-based languages like HTML, CSS and Javascript, which all front-end developers can work with, and then released across multiple devices. To the average customer, hybrid apps look and operate like any other (native) app they have downloaded from their app store. In reality it the wrapping and distribution process looks a little more like this:

hybriddistribution

In an ideal world, the hybrid app would be the absolute champion but there are a few drawbacks. Native apps have the advantage of using the device’s inherent technology, which means they outperform hybrid apps in speed and interaction capabilities. So, whereas the hybrid app solves a lot of the issues surrounding budgets, developer resources and the time it takes to release updates, graphically demanding apps will need to go native. The only way to figure out what sort of app is right for your customers is to look at what they prioritize in terms of usefulness regarding your particular service.

Those in the financial industry are aware that the legacy systems their back-ends currently rely on struggle to support modern technologies that deliver the kind of experience customers expect. They need a solution that doesn’t further complicate their already overloaded systems. For them, it’s less important to provide the kind of super-responsive, rich experience that a game provider like Olvi, of Angry Birds fame, needs to deliver, and more important to be able to give consistent service to all of their online customers. Banks also need to be able to execute updates at speed and release across all devices simultaneously. Having to program between 4 and 7 different versions of the same app takes a takes a large chunk of the time banks have to respond to changes in the marketplace. Another crucial factor for banks is the native app’s lack of flexibility when it comes to A/B testing and analytics. Aside from the difficulty in trying to implement that sort of functionality, native apps also require much more time to respond to any new data gained from testing.

It should also be noted that creating and updating native apps requires a high level of specialization from developers. Rarely, if ever, will a single developer be adept at working with all the available SDK’s from each device. This isn’t an issue with hybrid apps because they’re built with programming languages familiar to all developers, no matter their skill level.

This is one of the primary reasons, other than speed of execution and faster time-to-market, that we believe hybrid apps are the way forward for financial institutions. Backbase Portal is based on open standards, like HTML, Javascript and CSS, making it easy for developers to create hybrid apps and widgets that can be deployed on all platforms. Even better, the widgets can be updated and published through our Portal Manager by anyone, including non-IT specialists.

Native apps, because of their highly specialized nature, will never be as easy to build and release or as accessible as hybrids. Not all businesses need the level of adaptability and speed of execution made possible through hybrid apps. For them, a super-rich, responsive user interface is essential to maintaining a competitive edge in their field and meeting customer expectations. The trick is in knowing what your customers want from you and evolving to meet their needs… It’s so easy even an app could do it.