The Middle Way of Mobile App Design

We’ve heard this conversation on mobile app design before, where well meaning coders will say to you: “don’t design native mobile apps, it isn’t worth your time, ” followed by the common refrain/rebuttal : “native apps take advantage of the hardware, like camera, and WiFi components of the phone…”

I’m not very interested in the debate, since it isn’t a very informed or intelligent discussion when one argues of developing native apps over mobile web apps, or the binary opposite. The common misconception is that there are only two approaches to design of mobile apps: native or web-based. The native approach includes developing in compiled languages like Java in the Android platform, and Objective C in the iOS platform. Web based mobile apps make use of HTML5 and CSS and Javascript to achieve an app-like interface and experience. A popular template used in the web based approach is the JQuery mobile framework:

But there is a middle way.  You can design and build a mobile app utilizing compiled languages as well as HTML, CSS and Javascript. The hybrid approach is HTML with native app elements. These rely on using cross platform mobile frameworks, like the PhoneGap framework (

You might wonder — why make an app using the PhoneGap framework? Using this HTML5 + native tools approach allows you to get into the hardware of the phone; like camera data, to incorporate things like a barcode scanner into your hybrid app. A full list of API elements is available here:  If you want a more basic rundown of how PhoneGap itself works in a library context, check out a past ALA presentation I did for the Mobile Computing Interest Group back in 2010:

Mobile app stores like Google Play and the Apple iTunes App Store help to drive traffic to your services and sites, and they will result in increased use of your library services and collections –and make possible new services, by their sheer existence.

Here are a few examples of apps I’ve built this way:


video tour of the undergrad library
–video tour app of the undergrad library, code available here:

New LIS Books

new book app
— recently added Library and Information Science books at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, code available here:

What your users and library will need is, of course, entirely up to you, but to know the options available such as hybrid approaches is a way to make informed and intelligent decisions about your library’s mobile presence.


Full disclosure: I researched and wrote an iPhone development book unpacking a hybrid approach to mobile application design that advances ways for web developers to make their apps available from the iTunes app store ( But you could also make your apps available from Google Play, using the Hybrid approach as well.