Native vs Cross-Platform Mobile App Development: How to Pick
According to research conducted by Statista, there are over six billion smartphone users globally. These smartphones have different platforms with different operating systems, like Android, owned by Google, or iOS, owned by Apple. But as a developer, how do you choose which platform users to build for?
In this article, you’ll learn more about the difference between native and cross-platform mobile app development. In addition, you’ll learn how to choose a technology that best suits your project.
What Is Native Mobile App Development?
Native mobile app development involves creating mobile apps for a specific mobile platform or device type. Usually, this means developing for Android or iOS. Also, you can only distribute your native mobile app through the specific platform’s app stores for the platform users.
Pros of Native Mobile App Development
- Better performance: Native apps have better or excellent performance than cross-platform apps. This is because the technology and programing language used to develop the app uses the platform's SDK (software development kit).
- Better Security: Native apps have better security compared to cross-platform apps, because they use the platform's native technology. Thus, they don’t rely on third-party libraries or frameworks, which are more vulnerable to malicious attacks on the internet.
- Access to device utilities: When developing a native mobile app, you have access to the platform’s device utilities, like location, storage, and cameras.
- App store distribution: Mobile native apps have access to the platform’s app distribution channel. That is to say, you won’t have to hassle with complex configurations as much as with cross-platform app development.
Cons of Native Mobile App Development
- Development Cost: Building a native mobile app has higher development costs than building a cross-platform app. First, it requires a dedicated developer or team of developers specialized in the specific platform you’re developing for (e.g., Android or iOS). Therefore, you’ll have to hire separate developers for the different platforms, which leads to more spending on hiring. This can be a burden for a startup or small business. Second, the cost of maintaining two platforms also is very high, in terms of salaries for separate developers.
- Development time: When building two native apps separately, you’ll need more time for research, user testing, and to bring the product to market, compared to cross-platform development.
- Upgrade Frequency: Another important drawback of native mobile app development is frequent upgrades and updates made by operating system owners. For example, Google makes at least two platform upgrades to its IDE (integrated development environment) and SDK a year. In addition, platform owners can make a lot of changes to policies concerning publishing apps on their platform.
Tools, and Languages for Native App Development
There are different tools, languages, and frameworks used to develop for Android versus iOS.
For Android, popular tools include Android Studio and Eclipse. Android Studio, built by Google’s developers, is the IDE recommended by Google. In contrast, for iOS, the primary IDE is Xcode, which was developed by Apple.
Building native apps requires using platform-specific languages or programming languages recommended by the platform owners. Consequently, which languages you should use varies by platform. For Android, these include Java and Kotlin, and for iOS apps, they include Objective-C and Swift.
What Is Cross-Platform Mobile App Development?
Cross-platform mobile app development, in contrast, involves developing mobile apps for distribution on multiple platforms. For example, you can build one application to distribute on both Android and iOS platforms without having to the platform’s native programming language. As a result, we refer to these apps as cross-platform apps.
Pros of Cross-Platform Mobile App Development
- Lower cost: Compared to native apps, cross-platform mobile apps are much cheaper to develop. You don't have to hire a separate team of developers who are specialists on a particular platform, lowering the cost of hiring. In addition, maintenance is not only simpler, but also cheaper, compared to native mobile app development. This is because you don't have to worry about frequent upgrades or updates for different platforms.
- Time-saving: Because cross-platform mobile app developers can build for multiple platforms, it saves time. That is, you only have to create one application that you can then launch on the different platforms’ app stores.
- Faster launch to market: No doubt cross-platform mobile app development is the technology of choice for small businesses. In part, this is because it’s faster to launch one product to the market as a minimum viable product and perform user research and testing than it is to launch two.
- Larger user reach: Lastly, an important advantage of cross-platform mobile app development is that by distributing your application on different platforms, you can reach more users than you could ever reach on one platform.
Cons of Cross-platform Mobile App Development
However, in addition to the advantages of app distribution on different platforms, cross-platform app development also has some drawbacks.
- Integration issues: As an inexperienced cross-platform mobile app developer, you might find integrating your apps with some platforms challenging, which can slow down development. For instance, when using Flutter to develop an iOS app (see Tools, below), you’ll need an Apple computer with Xcode to compile your code for Apple’s app store. This can be an issue if you don't have an Apple computer to do this.
- Limited functionality: Importantly, cross-platform mobile apps can have limited functionality. This is particularly true when it comes to using the platform's native SDK or device utilities like location services, networks, storage, and cameras. You may need to rely on third-party libraries to access such functions.
- Third party vulnerability issues: As a result of using third-party libraries, cross-platform apps are more prone to security vulnerabilities and more open to malicious exploits by hackers.
- Performance issues: Lastly, realize that reduced performance is also a major drawback of cross-platform mobile app development. Cross-platform apps don't use native platform technology and instead rely on third-party libraries. Thus, they can run more slowly, leading to a bad user experience.
Tools, Languages, and Frameworks for Cross-platform App Development
Some of the popular tools for cross-platform development include the following.
- VS Code (Visual Studio Code): This is the most popular IDE, developed by Microsoft. It has a lot of community support and a marketplace for extensions used to build Android and iOS applications.
- Android Studio: This is the official IDE for Google's Android OS. It is a free open-source IDE that can be used for both native and cross-platform mobile development. Android Studio supports cross-platform mobile development programming languages like Flutter and React.
Popular programming languages and frameworks are listed below.
- Flutter: First released by Google in 2017, Flutter is an open source cross-platform mobile app development framework that uses the Dart programming language under the hood.
- Xamarin: Developed by Microsoft, it uses C-sharp (C#) under the hood for cross-platform mobile app development.
- Ionic: Built on top of AngularJS and Cordova, Ionic is an open source SDK for building cross-platform mobile apps.
In addition, other cross-platform mobile app technologies include jQuery Mobile, Onsen UI, and Sencha Ext JS.
Is Cross-Platform the Best Choice for Mobile App Development?
Although both types of mobile app development are good options, they each have their advantages and drawbacks. Ultimately, your choice depends on the purpose of the mobile app you want to develop.
The major reason you should choose cross-platform mobile app development over native mobile app development include:
- Wide distribution of the app on different app store for each platform
- Reduced cost of hiring because you don’t need dedicated teams for the different platforms.
- Faster time to release your MVP (minimum viable product) to the market and your users.
What is the difference between native platforms and cross-platform?
Native mobile app
Cross-platform mobile app
Access to the device utilities
Only to one platform
To multiple platforms
Slow to the market
Faster to the market
Currently, cross-platform mobile app development is overtaking native app development, with tons of developers learning cross-platform mobile app development technologies. This is because of the wide distribution of apps across multiple platforms.
However, when picking one, choose what you want based on the pros and cons of each type of development, your use case, and your resources.
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