Today many people prefer to do their shopping and binge-watching on a smartphone rather than a computer.
So when deciding to scale your business and grow your potential clientele, releasing a mobile app — assuming you haven’t done that yet — is the next logical step.
There are two ways to go about mobile development. You can choose to build native apps for all the respective platforms you need or create a cross-platform solution. In this article, we will compare them to understand the pros and cons.
Native Mobile App Development
A native mobile application is a piece of software built for a specific mobile operating system. Therefore a native app:
- Meets the OS requirements;
- Uses platform SDK;
- Has access to the device’s hardware memory and gear;
- Has access and can interact with the device’s first-party and third-party applications.
When it comes to platforms, we are speaking of Android and iOS, the only platforms with a user base large enough to consider.
A regular iOS or Android app is sure to be the first to spring to mind when thinking about mobile development. So, let’s start there.
We’ll take a look at the main advantages that set native mobile apps apart from their cross-platform counterparts:
- Hardware access. A native mobile application can properly make use of all of the device’s resources, such as internal memory, camera, GPS, biometric authentication hardware, etc.
- Responsive UI/performance. Apps that software developers build for iOS or Android specifically tend to run faster and are more responsive to the users’ commands.
- Ultimate UX. Each mobile operating system features a set of pre-defined UI and UX guidelines that developers are to follow. If they don’t, the OS publisher — Apple for iOS and Google for Android — won’t put the app on their app stores. Following platform-specific guidelines leaves everybody — developers, publishers, and users — certain that the app will look, feel, and work how you would expect.
It would be wrong, however, to say that a native app is the only right way to go about mobile software development. Native apps may not be the best fit for you for the following reasons:
- Not versatile. Because of the guidelines, native applications have to look somewhat like all the other apps for your platform of choice. When coding for Android, the developer has to use the Material Design guidelines for the app.
In the case of iOS, it’s Human Interface Guidelines that are mandatory. So there might be contradictions between your vision of the perfect app and what’s considered the norm for the respective OS.
- Longer time to deploy. Creating a native application usually takes a long time. The developers will have to build the app from the ground up, and if you want to have apps for both mobile platforms, you will have to build two separate apps, doubling the development time.
- Cost. Generally, native mobile development is quite expensive — the average bottom-end price is $10,000. And you must double that cost if you’re looking to build apps for both iOS and Android.
Native is the best way to go if a high-performing application and hardware access is your top priority. But if you are concerned about the app costs and development time, there is another approach for you.
Cross-Platform Mobile App Development
Cross-platform apps are applications that can run on several operating systems. There are a couple of ways to create cross-platform applications, either with unified API or web components.
Having only one application to build and support sounds reasonable in terms of time, costs, and effort. But, like native mobile apps, cross-platform software has its advantages and disadvantages.
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The main reasons you may prefer a cross-platform app over the native one are:
- Short development time. Cross-platform application takes less time to build because of the reusable code. Programmers can utilize frameworks that allow them to reuse up to 70-90% of the code. It’s basically two applications with the same codebase, which saves your team tons of time.
- Cost-effectiveness. The ability to reuse the codebase saves you the effort and financial burden of hiring two separate development teams to have two apps developed.
- Larger user-base. If your budget is limited, there is only so much you can do. For instance, if you can afford one application to build, you will have to choose only one platform, and therefore the user base of that platform. But you can go cross-platform and cover user bases of several operating systems with just one app.
Just as with native apps, there are scenarios where a cross-platform app isn’t the best option. You may not favor cross-platform for the following reasons:
- Performance issues. Cross-platform applications tend to run less smoothly than native ones, since the app is a combination of web elements wrapped inside a WebView. Everything in there is a plain website, which is usually not as responsive as native software.
- Limited hardware functionality. Since cross-platform apps are essentially websites, they have limited access to the device’s hardware. Even though the technology has come a long way with Progressive Web Apps, the software still can’t access things such as NFC and proximity sensors.
- Confusing UX. Cross-platform apps do not have to follow the iOS or Android design guidelines. The development team can go all-out and build the exact thing they want. This actually can be a disadvantage because the guidelines help to make software consistent. Users don’t have to learn how to use any new software because it looks and feels just like any app for a particular OS. If the guidelines aren’t followed, there may be a learning curve for users.
- Lack of complex features. Cross-platform applications are basically limited to what a web app can do. So, if you need your app to be a bit more complicated, the developers will have to build those for each OS natively.
This goes to show that no approach is all-purpose. You’ll need to choose the one that best serves your goals, budget, your developers’ skills, etc.
Native mobile software development tools
Native mobile applications are built with a specific language and technology for a particular operating system. Both OSs feature time-proven tools, along with new entries.
The most popular languages are:
Java is a very popular and very powerful language for various software solutions. Many development teams use it, from startups to data analytics initiatives. Programmers can use Java to create not only mobile but web, desktop, and IoT software solutions — it is very versatile.
- Simple syntax and mild learning curve. The high-level language makes the code easier to learn, write, read, and maintain.
- Enterprise standard. Since Java has a ton of libraries, developers can create almost any function a company may need. Considering how variable the enterprise’s problems can be, Java fits well as a solution. Java is also cheap to maintain because the developers don’t need specific hardware — they can run the servers on any machine.
- Low security risks. The language has some tricks up its sleeve to protect the user from vulnerabilities. For instance, Java does not have pointers, unlike C, which can be the cause of unauthorized access to memory. In addition, by using the built-in Security Manager, the programmers can tweak access rules. This way, Java apps can run in “sandbox,” so they won’t harm the system if they get damaged.
- Ease of collaboration. The distributed nature of the language allows for sharing data among multiple machines. Moreover, Java supports Socket Programming and the distribution technology of Cobra, which developers can use to share objects between programs written in different languages.
- Massive community. Thanks to the community, Java boasts a large ecosystem of well-tested libraries.
- Performance issues. The programming community often criticizes Java for its poor performance. A feature called Garbage Collector, for instance, takes more than 20% of CPU time.
- Verbose code. The code has a lot of words, to put it simply. It makes it less readable and scannable. The language tries to emulate English, forcing the developers to type exactly what they mean. This makes Java easy to understand, but it is not compact at all.
Kotlin is another popular entry to Android development. It is an open-source statistically-typed language, the code of which can run on the Java Virtual Machine.
- Interoperability with Java code. Switching from Java to Kotlin is seamless and easy. So if you have written an app in Java, you can add new features or update the whole application in Kotlin.
- Easy maintenance. Today many IDEs support Kotlin, so programmers don’t have to learn new environments to work with Kotlin.
- Compact code. Kotlin syntax is easy to learn and read, while staying compact and clean. The language takes fewer lines of code to build features and whole Android applications, which is an obvious advantage when compared to Java.
- Reliability. The language saw its first release back in 2011, so it has had its fair share of alpha and beta versions. On top of that, the developers of Kotlin have made the newest version reversely compatible with previous versions, so nothing gets broken when updating.
- Fluctuation in compilation. Though Kotlin performs much better than Java, the latter is still a better option for creating clean builds of Android apps.
- Less mature community. Kotlin is much younger than Java. So, there is less talent available for hire, and the number of learning resources is limited.
That’s one part of the story. What about the tools for native iOS apps?
This language is open-sourced and is mostly used for developing macOS, iOS, tvOS, and watch OS applications.
- Mature language with a huge community. The very first version of Objective-C was released in 1984, with the 2.0 version coming out in 2006. It has a strong and experienced community and polished practices. Along with that comes an abundance of well-tested third-party libraries.
- Compatibility. The technology is compatible with other C languages, like C and C++. It means that developers can use C or C++ code inside their Objective-C files.
- Dated language. At the end of the day, a newer iOS language, Swift, will replace Objective-C. So the language won’t be supporting the latest features and iOS releases once many developers move their apps to Swift.
- Performance issues. As Apple claims, Swift is performing much better than Objective-C. The syntax of the latter is more difficult and more loaded.
Swift was released by Apple in 2014. It is meant to replace Objective-C as the main language for iOS, macOS, ipadOS, watchOS, and tvOS development. It is known for a lower learning curve and better performance compared with Objective-C.
- Good performance. Swift is set to work much faster than its predecessor. It has a concise syntax and is much more user-friendly.
- Compatibility. Swift can interoperate with Objective-C code, making it easy for programmers to move their existing mobile applications to Swift and add new features in Swift.
- Scalability. Simple syntax adds to the readability of the language, so adding new developers to work on an ongoing project is a breeze.
- Full-stack potential. Programmers can also use Swift to build the server side of the mobile app. Companies such as Apple and IBM are working hard to make Swift Server Side a more popular and widely used solution. IBM, for instance, has developed a dedicated Kitura framework.
- New language. Swift is very young, meaning that there are not many developers available for hire. But considering its short learning curve, developers are picking it up very fast. However, there are not that many tools and native libraries in place.
- No support for early iOS versions. The earliest version that Swift supports is iOS 7. Even though the number of devices running iOS 6 and earlier is extremely small, developers cannot support legacy projects running on these versions.
Native development tools are what you need to build powerful, feature-packed applications. When in need of shorter development time and a larger user base, look into tech for cross-platform development.
Cross-platform mobile software development tools
Now that you have chosen the most fitting way to build your app, let’s take a look at the tools you’ll need to develop a cross-platform app.
There are plenty of development frameworks you can use to build your mobile software. We’ll stack them up against each other as well as native software development tools.
The most popular cross-platform tools are:
Xamarin is built with C# and .NET. It lets developers create applications for Windows Android, iOS, macOS, tvOS, and ipadOS. The apps share a user interface, which the programmers build using Xamarin.Forms. For specific platform interface features, there are Xamarin.iOS and Xamarin.Android tools. With these tools, developers can use native and third-party APIs to utilize the device’s hardware functionality, like the camera, proximity sensors, connectivity, etc.
- Mature development community. Xamarin is supported by a huge pool of developers, as well as Microsoft: there are tons of learning resources and libraries available.
- Code reusability. Xamarin allows for reusing from 60% up to 95% of the C# code written within .NET. So, developers can write the code once and use it everywhere, shortening the development time and budget.
- Integrability. Mobile app developers can make use of Xamarin’s access to native APIs, along with the guide-compliant GUI elements, to make software that looks, feels, and performs just as well as the native one.
- Platform limitations. Let’s not forget that we are talking about cross-platform development here. Though most of the code can be reused, developers might need to come up with workarounds for some features, such as multi-touch or platform-specific navigation gestures.
- API support lag. Though Xamarin is usually pretty good at supporting API, it still takes time to be updated when the new native features are released. The developers can’t try them out straight away.
- Hot reloading feature. This feature is great because it doesn’t break the flow of developers. Programmers can implement new features while running the app in the emulator and see the changes on the go. The team saves a lot of time on app compilation.
- Good performance. If the application is simple in form, it will perform just as well as a native app. However, you may notice the difference if building complex software. In this case, transferring some code to a native module will make sense.
- Lack of custom modules. Most of the React Native components are available and well-documented, but every once in a while, developers come across situations when the module they need simply isn’t there, or it is underdeveloped. For instance, programmers report that making shadows in React Native requires writing a solution from scratch.
- Large community. Just as with other popular tools, the large community provides an abundance of tutorials, documentation, and third-party libraries.
- Additional frameworks. To further enhance the user-experience and pack in more features, developers can utilize additional frameworks, such as jQuery mobile framework or Kendo UI Core. Those frameworks let programmers create touch-optimized apps that look like native ones.
- Unreliable plugins. Sometimes, developers may need to tweak existing plugins to add extra functionality or to even make them work properly.
- Performance and app size. Do not forget that the mobile application runs in webview.
- Faster coding. Flutter has a Hot Reload feature, so developers can apply changes to their code and see those in the app right away. There are some limitations to the features that can’t be hot reloaded, but the list is very short.
- Good performance. Flutter applications feature close-to-native performance: the apps are responsive and the scrolling is smooth.
- UI widgets. Flutter provides plenty of beautiful widgets, which programmers can use to build native-like interfaces.
- Libraries and support. Google provides many useful libraries, but the tool is still a little too young to match the level of support enjoyed with older SDKs. So programmers might have to build some features from scratch when working on a cross-platform mobile app.
Ionic uses HTML, CSS, and JS to let the development team build cross-platform apps for iOS and Android. Ionic has a built-in library of elements such as pop-ups, toggles, and input boxes that adapt to look like native ones for each respective OS. However, the developers can tweak those as they please.
- Plugins and integration options. The development team can integrate different plugins to add features that are lacking and to let the app access the device’s hardware.
- UI library. Another great feature of Ionic is a library of UI components. Components allow developers to create apps that look like native ones, with ready-made components. For more flexibility, components can be customized.
- Performance issues. Webview rendering applications can perform quite well for simple tasks. But if your mobile software project relies on heavy graphic or AR functionality, you will notice a performance drop.
- No hot reloading. When working with Ionic, developers won’t be able to see the changes they make to the app on the fly.
As you can see, both native and cross-platform applications have their merits as well as drawbacks. Different approaches can be applied to mobile software development depending on your needs:
- Native applications perform the best and have access to all the device’s hardware. But you will have to hire two separate teams to build two apps for two platforms. You should expect higher expenses for your project.
- Cross-platform applications share the same codebase, so one team of programmers will handle the job. With just one app you will cover the user base of two platforms. But those apps can have performance issues, along with limited hardware access.
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