HTML5, Native and Hybrid development: The Conectus Vision

Progettazione di app mobile

The past experience of Objectway in mobile apps and the latest advances in HTML5 and hybrid / native development, all lead to the conclusion that a hybrid development strategy is the best approach to developing wealth management applications.

Native app development

The surge of smartphones and tablets caused a move from Web browser-based applications to mobile apps. Most of the software vendors in the banking and wealth management space chose to build native apps, that were faster and delivered a better experience to their users.

The cost of supporting multiple platforms was reckoned to be high and soon several cross-platform development environments appeared. However until lately, opinion advised strongly against cross-platform apps, as they lacked support of device-specific features. In 2013, research firm Celent advised

Those who pursue a single-code base strategy, risk forgoing significant functionality. For example, HTML 5, while clean, does not support some of the API level functionality like GPS, accelerometer, camera.

The majority of mobile app vendors focused their native development efforts on the iOS and Android platforms, as confirmed by a Celent survey in 2013.

HTML5

HTML5 is a collection of technologies that standardizes the building of Rich Internet Applications (RIA). Such dynamic applications were a welcome evolution of the static Web and its HTML pages, but required additional proprietary software plug-ins such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight.

HTML5 was meant to be a vendor-independent standard that would add motion, video, 2-D and 3-D graphics effects to the Web. It evolved to include an ever increasing number of modern Web technologies. It now refers to a collection of more than 100 specifications with varying implementation status, under the control of more than one standards bodies.

A very important feature of HTML5 is that it can implement complex logic on the client using the JavaScript programming language. This allows for full-featured client applications of any complexity, and puts it on a par with native app development and language such as Objective-C. Complex behavior can be coded in the client; communication between client and server is reduced to the absolute minimum.

HTML5 maturity

According to the Gartner Group, in 2015 mobile developers are increasingly adopting HTML5  and the technology has already reached market penetration of 20-50% of the target audience, but adoption scenarios on desktop and mobile platforms are different:

In desktop use cases, Web technologies are still the way new functionality is delivered. [..] On mobile, there is the pure Web approach, with limited success beyond information-driven mobile websites. There is much wider adoption of hybrid architectures, where HTML and other Web technologies are used in conjunction with native-code wrappers.

This last remark is important to remember because it helps clarify a misunderstanding:

  1. HTML5 is a portable technology indispensable to create cross-platform apps
  2. HTML5 alone is not sufficient to deliver a successful mobile experience, but…
  3. another technology, Hybrid Mobile Development, is used together with HTML5 to deliver a successful mobile cross-platform experience.

Hybrid mobile development

Hybrid mobile development allows developers to use Web skills and technologies (HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript), running within a container such as Apache Cordova or Adobe PhoneGap. Hybrid mobile apps are indistinguishable from native ones: they can be loaded into an app store, downloaded to a mobile device and used like a native mobile app. They also present numerous advantages:

  • One App for more Platforms: only one (well, almost one) development stream, many different deployments (iOS, Android, Windows Phone).
  • One responsive App can handle different screen sizes (smartphones, tablets, desktop)
  • Can deliver a consistent User Experience on different platforms.
  • Can use platform-specific features (via Cordova).
  • Not bound by native features/behaviours.

The few disadvantages are:

  • No native user experience — though this can be reached using particular CSS frameworks.
  • Less reactivity
  • Using native features may deliver a different user experience across devices (but this can also be seen as an advantage).

According to the Gartner Group

Increasingly, developers are viewing hybrid and native not so much a binary choice, but as a spectrum. [..] This allows developers to pick the most effective development approach for areas within the app, based on criteria such as performance, security and productivity.

Pure native development is favored only in the most demanding apps, such as gaming.

In 2014 a survey from Mobile Vision confirmed that 42% of North American mobile developers were already using some combination of HTML, CSS and JavaScript in their mobile applications. Again Gartner predicts that

Hybrid apps, which offer a balance between HTML5-based web apps and native apps, will be used in more than 50 percent of mobile apps by 2016.

Apache Cordova

Apache Cordova is a container for hybrid mobile development and is the one preferred by Objectway. It is a set of device APIs that allow a mobile app developer to access native device functions. Combined with a User Interface framework, it allows an app to be developed in JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS3. A container has many advantages:

  • One language for every platform (Development, Test, Deployment).
  • Cordova is guided by a plugin architecture, meaning that access to native device APIs can be extended in a modular way (developers love this).
  • You can use mobile skills (Objective-C, Android) to write native plugins.
  • A lot of plugin libraries are available.
  • App content is only cached on client so can be driven by server, and this means releases on app stores can be less frequent than in native apps.
  • A native platform specialist is needed only for special features.
  • Cordova is open source and free, so there are no licensing costs and a big Open Source community thrives around the platform.

Cordova has some disadvantages, too:

  • Some features are not always present for all devices, it may be necessary to develop own plugins.
  • Performance can be a problem on obsolete devices (i.e. more than 5 years old).

In conclusion, the combination of HTML5 and Hybrid / Native development seems to be the best approach to developing mobile applications and the specific experience of Objectway in the wealth management space only confirms that.

Objectway experience in native mobile development

Objectway started developing mobile apps in July 2010 and delivered its first app in production in November 2011. In this period some large-scale projects were undertaken using its dedicated team of native app developers for iOS and Android.

  • Home Banking App (2011) for the 4th largest Italian Bank, with 1 million customers on iOS and Android tablets & smartphones; 500.000 user downloads after the first 2 months.
  • Financial Planning App (2012) for a large Asset Manager, for iOS and Android tablets, with more than 50,000 downloads by advisors and clients.
  • Financial Advisor App (2013) for network of 1,500 agents of large Wealth manager Azimut SIM, for iPad 2 or later; the app includes Portfolio Reporting, Advice, MIFID Suitability, Orders, biometric E-Signature.
  • Life Planner App (2013) for Barclays Western Europe, for iPad 2 or later, made for 1,200 advisors in Italy, Portugal, France, Spain.

Objectway also experimented with the Hybrid, cross-platform development approach since 2012, rolling out its live first hybrid app, based on Titanium (today AppCelerator). But until the start of 2014, cross-platform HTML5 did not fulfill the requirements for quick response times and handy gestures such as drag-and-drop, which are deemed necessary to engage customers when talking to their advisors.
For this reason, all Objectway Apps before 2014 were based on native technology. This changed when HTML5 and hybrid mobile development frameworks came to full maturity.

Objectway current mobile development strategy

Objectway’s experience with mobile app development from 2010 to 2015 resulted in the following strategy for App development.

  • Native Development should only be used when it is strongly needed.
  • It has high costs to support many platforms (iOS, Android, Win), with different development tracks and multiple testing needed.
  • It involves many different technologies to related to native systems (iOS-Objective C, Android–Java, Windows Phone–C#).
  • It is not easy to do responsive design: even the move from iPad to iPhone 6 is costly.
  • Native development can be adequate if the app should be used on one target device only, or when there is a strong need for device integration and app-side computing.
  • In the case of financial services institutions, their clients can have a very broad range of devices, and the application does not need top app-side computing capabilities.

Hybrid 2.0, i.e. a mix of HTML5 and Native Development, is the proper way forward. It features many advantages:

  • It allows to access Device-dependent services (phone, location, cameras) through frameworks such as Apache Cordova.
  • It allows for easy porting from one device to another and across device sizes with HTML5/AngularJS.

The Conectus vision

Given the evolution of technology and its experience, Objectway in late 2014 charted its vision with respect to mobile app development:

  • Build a new front-end platform, called Conectus, to deliver the user experience for the entire range of Objectway products destined to investment advisors and their clients
  • Develop the product as a hybrid / native app, leveraging HTML5 as much as possible.
  • Include device-specific features in apps as necessary, such as TouchID, push notifications, biometric e-signatures.

Conectus is a mobile platform following the Hybrid / Native development paradigm employing numerous standards and languages such as HTML5, CSS3, SASS, Jade, TypeScript, AngularJS, JavaScript, JSON/REST/HTTPS. It uses WebRTC for collaboration features such as video, chat and co-browsing.

Conectus apps integrate native APIs via Cordova and can be downloaded from iOS, Android, and Windows Phone stores without being distinguishable from other native apps.

The road covered thus far confirmed the capability of hybrid / native development and HTML5 to deliver the best experience for users of the Conectus platform, and to adapt very easily to new device formats such as the Apple iPad Pro, new versions of operating systems or new browsers.

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