Hybrid Vs. Native: Viggle, New York Times Talk Mobile App Strategy

A potentially more versatile breed of mobile app is catching the attention of startups and more established companies alike, but the technology has not won over everyone. Hybrid apps seek to blend the flexibility found in HTML5-based Web apps with traditional, native mobile apps into one platform. That serves the needs of Viggle, (OTCBB: FNCX), a startup in New York whose app rewards TV viewers as they watch shows. For media giant The New York Times, however, hybrid apps thus far have seen limited use because of the needs of digital advertising.

Mike Sommers, Viggle’s head of product, and Michael Finkel, director of Web product and emerging technologies for The New York Times, spoke last month at a Mobile Monday New York event at the TimesCenter about the ways their respective companies use hybrid apps and how the technology could change the way mobile apps are developed.

Understanding what a hybrid app is requires a look at Web-based apps designed with HTML5. This latest version of the language used to create online content is being seen as a way to develop richer, more intricate Web apps that can run on most any device. Some Web apps, however, can feel a touch bland when compared with native mobile apps designed to work with specific operating systems such as Google Android or Apple iOS. In some cases native apps may offer different functions that take advantage of the devices they are built to work with.

Hybrid apps try to bring together elements from both to offer specialized features while allowing broad use among devices. Sommers said Viggle’s hybrid app works similarly to Shazam, picking up small audio samples via the users’ smartphone microphones while they watch television shows. The app converts the audio into a digital fingerprint, which is compared against Viggle’s cloud-based database of TV shows. Viewers using the app can receive loyalty rewards such as gift cards and movie tickets based on the TV shows they watch. “That all requires native functionality to make that piece happen, but we’re really focused on what happens after users have checked in to the TV show,” Sommers said.

Viggle was founded in 2010 under the name Function(x). The company released its app in January. Viggle’s platform presents its users with content, e-commerce offers, and social connections relevant to the shows they watch. That personalization requires some specialized software under the hood. Sommers said his company plans to release a new version of its platform in the coming weeks for third parties such as television networks, TV production companies, and independent developers to build apps that would live within the Viggle app.

Introducing third-party software can add more features to Viggle’s platform but it also means finding ways to keep the technology streamlined. “If we wanted to do that with a pure native app,” Sommers said, “we’d have to release an update every time a new app was integrated into our app.”

To avoid such a headache for users and developers, he said his company needed to create a hybrid app that allows the platform to adapt and grow.

The New York Times’ Finkel said companies want the best of both worlds via hybrid apps, but so far the ideal technology remains elusive. “You are aiming for this mythical single platform on which your developers can write code in one language and—as much as possible— is usable across multiple platforms,” he said.

In spite of such prospects for apps built with HTML5 technology, apps designed for specific operating systems and devices maintain a few edges on functions. Media companies in particular need apps that fit their digital advertising needs. “There just isn’t an industry standard way to deliver ads into HTML 5 apps,” Finkel said. “That’s pretty important for us.” He also said it was difficult to place ads via HTML5 on users’ devices when they are offline.

Thus far the New York Times’ Election 2012 app, which offers users news, polls, and live results from elections, is its only hybrid app, he said. All others from the media company are native. That could change in the future as the technology evolves to meet the demands of media publishers. “Taking a hybrid approach is worth exploring,” Finkel said. “A lot of what you’re pushing is content for user consumption.”

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