What is Cross-Platform Mobile Development?
The two renowned mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, continue to dominate the market with over 99% of the global share. Naturally, mobile app developers want their product to be present on two platforms at the same time to have a wider audience reach and more opportunities for growth and monetization. The problem is, both OSes run on incompatible programming languages, use disjoint frameworks and tools, and have critical UX and UI navigation differences. A solution to overcome that obstacle that has been gaining more popularity in recent years is cross-platform app development.
The cross-platform approach allows you to create a mobile application that can be instantly deployed to work on each platform, with a reusable code base that only requires a single cycle of development. This guide will walk you through the definition, advantages, and limitations of cross-platform mobile app development, as well as the existing frameworks and their comparative differences. We’ll also touch upon native applications and cross-platform mobile solutions to understand the potential use cases for each of them.
What are Cross-Platform Apps
A cross-platform app is not built for any particular mobile OS – rather, it has a platform-unspecific back-end layer that performs well on any device regardless of its affiliation. The alteration for the front-end part is implemented with the help of special frameworks that unify tools, libraries, and guides to help developers save money and time on native adaptations. Once the application is created, it does not need any further modifications to be distributed through an app store, whether iOS, Android, or other.
An end-user with no app development experience will probably notice little to no difference at all between a cross-platform and a native app, especially for simple application concepts or MVP releases. For development companies and independent coders, though, this decision carries a lot of weight as it affects the deployment timeline, budget, required tools and skills, and the resulting app performance. Some of these aspects represent the advantages of cross-platform development while others are among its challenges.
Challenges in Cross-Platform App Development Process
While the definition of cross-platform development sounds promising, there are several limitations that these apps have. For one, it’s the lack of timely OS-related updates. Once, say, Android releases a new feature, it will instantly be available in their officially supported development environment and SDKs, while a cross-platform Android app will likely require a bridge for that same purpose – at least until the functionality appears in the framework as well. Another consideration is in the app’s processing time. Some cross-platform mobile development frameworks use interpreted programming languages, which can make content uploading significantly slower. However, if your app does not require fast rendering, the difference will be minimal. The same goes for compatibility issues – cross-platform apps might not work well on legacy or newly released devices, like the latest versions of macOS or Apple’s smartwatch.
The key challenges in cross-platform development are the user experience and performance of the application. These apps might lack seamless user interaction and have trouble utilizing features specific to each platform like geolocation reporting, FaceID, fingerpaint, etc. Parts of native code can mitigate that issue, so your cross-platform developers will also have to know some Swift and Kotlin. Still, the available app development tools are constantly evolving, and you should be able to find the best cross-platform framework for your use case.
Advantages of Cross-Platform Development
As for the advantages of this type of mobile application development, they definitely lie in its time-to-market and costs. To build two native mobile apps, you will have to hire or outsource two different development teams – essentially to bring the same business logic behind the app to life. The “cross” approach makes 70-90% of the code reusable and allows you to build an app that works on multiple devices with fewer headaches.
In mobile app development, the goal is usually to release the application on moderate timelines and limited budgets to start seeing ROI and collecting user feedback. Cross-platform application development lets you achieve just that, giving you a self-sustainable beta version that reaches a broader audience. You’ll also have less trouble with ongoing app maitenence and updates as you’ll have to support a single application instead of two separate ones.
Native vs. Cross-Platform Apps
Native mobile apps are built using Objective-C or Swift for iOS and Kotlin or Java for Android. Swift and Kotlin are supported as primary languages by Apple and Google, so they are preferred for writing native code. Native apps have the best possible UX and UI as they will work directly with the development tools provided in the official OS IDE: Xcode and Android Studio. As mentioned above, all the new features will be available as soon as they are released. Native apps are faster than cross-platform ones, more stable in performance, and more secure in terms of data storage.
Perhaps the main drawback that native apps have is the time and money concerns: you will need two different teams to do two separate development cycles in order to achieve almost the same result, with double maintenance on top. Some of the reasons to go native include already having previous experience with one of the languages among your team, creating the app to a target audience of solely Apple or Android users, or opting for a complex application that uses a lot of advanced functionalities. For startups or small-budget projects, native apps might be too much of a luxury, and cross-platform is a more sustainable choice.
|Native apps||Cross-platform apps|
|Required experience in app development||Might be too challenging for beginners||Beginner-friendly|
|Development timeline to make an app for a single platform||Slower||Faster|
|UX, UI, and performance||Seamless user experience, can utilize all available features and design elements natively||Limited UI and feature support, possible performance issues, although not too common|
|Device compatibility||Guaranteed support||Might not work on legacy or new models right away|
Top 10 Best Cross-Platform App Development Frameworks
Depending on your mobile app development goals and programming language preferences, take a look at these 10 best development frameworks for cross-platform applications – the top choices for the past year – to find the right fit.
Xamarin is an open-source cross-platform framework that has been around for ten years, currently owned by Microsoft. It runs on C# in Visual Studio and .NET and offers a universal API interface for access to SDKs and features of each OS platform: Android, iOS, and Windows. Native device features are accessed with a library called Xamarin.Essentials. Xamarin uses a shared business logic layer and creates a Xamarin.Forums layer on top to program UI layers for each platform with the help of API.
Codename One is a less renowned framework based on Java and has plugins for Eclipse, NetBeans, and IntelliJ IDEA. It works with standard IDEs, which gives you access to more features and uses a lightweight architecture. It translates all code into native and doesn’t require OS-specific hardware.
Flutter is an open-source cross-platform app development framework backed by Google. It runs on its own programming language called Dart. Flutter is essentially a UI toolkit with a lot of ready-made widgets that also has a low code app builder for the back-end features. You’ll still have to adapt the code to use complex features, like FaceID and fingerpaint. According to a 2021 Statista survey, Flutter was used by 42% of coders, making it the most popular mobile application development framework among other alternatives.
Cross-platform applications often lack advanced 3D and graphics support that is present in native apps. As a solution to that, Unity has proven to be effective in rendering high-quality 2D and 3D visuals, which made it especially popular for mobile game apps. Unlike many other platforms, Unity is not open-source, and its pricing paywalls can seem a little steep.
PhoneGap / Apache Cordova
PhoneGap is under Adobe’s wing, with its codebase handled by Apache. In some sense, PhoneGap is a distribution of Cordova in an Adobe ecosystem. It is a cross-platform cloud service that compiles HLML5, CSS3, and JS into a ready-to-use application without having to support native development SDKs. The applications run in a WebView browser inside a native container on iOS or Android.
Despite the name, Kotlin Multiplatform is not only for cross-platform Android app development but represents an experimental extension of Kotlin that lets you build iOS-suitable applications as well. This is especially useful for coders that are fluent in Kotlin and do not have time or resources to learn new languages. The framework does not depend on a virtual machine to run on the target platform, which facilitates development for iOS.
RubyMotion is a partially open-source framework that uses MacRuby as its primary language. The resulting apps are statically compiled. It can call into native components but requires separate graphical interfaces for iOS and Android.
|React Native||Backed by Facebook, responsive UX/UI, strong community, fast development time||Slower processing time, harder to master, requires a Mac for iOS development||Instagram, UberEats, Walmart, Airbnb|
|Xamarin||Sharable UI code, backed by Microsoft, high OS customization||Limited features in the free version, slower updates, fewer tutorials||Siemens, Bosch, Slack|
|Codename One||Based on Java, no hardware limitations, code portability||Less popular, a small community of developers, performance discrepancies||Vodafone, Verizon|
|Flutter||Facilitates complex and native-looking UI, great speed and performance, backed by Google||Runs on a relatively unpopular language that you’ll have to learn, no browser support, rather heavy||Google Ads, Reflectly, PostMuse|
|Ionic||Beautiful UI, a lot of platform-specific feature plugins||Four different languages required, some plugins conflict with each other, harder debugging||Electronic Arts, Airbus|
|Unity||Best for game apps, strong support, easy to learn||Higher license fees even for standard features, outdated documentation||Norman’s Island, Osiris: New Dawn|
|NativeScript||Platform-native UI, lots of plugins||Missing components, poor support||Strudel, Dwitch|
|PhoneGap / Cordova||Embedded OS-native payment systems, a good performance track record, easy to learn||Requires manual adjustments to make the code native-like, slower performance on older devices||Pacifica, Sworkit|
|Kotlin Multiplatform||The best fit for native Android developer teams, does not need a VM to run||Tricky iOS debugging, few existing code samples and libraries as it is still new||CashApp, PlanGrid|
|RubyMotion||Best for Ruby developers, calls into native APIs||A limited free version, hard for beginners||A Dark Room, Jukely|
How to Choose the Appropriate App Framework
To choose the right cross-platform mobile development framework for your app, you already should have the approximate list of features and wireframes figured out. All of the platforms above have their pros and cons, so there is really no universal framework – it comes down to simply finding the best solution for your current case. With that in mind, you should also decide on the programming language you want to pursue, whether learning it from scratch, building the right team, or evaluating your current one.
For enterprise businesses and generous development budget, the top frameworks to consider are Flutter and React Native. They have credible support behind them, an established developer community, and some big names among their clients. Smaller companies or start-ups may consider Ionic or Cordova. For mobile games specifically, definitely look up Unity.