In just a decade, smartphones have become a necessity for communication and entertainment, with developers creating applications for everything from AR to weather.
To deliver the best user experience, developers construct mobile apps with the smartphone’s operating system—typically Android or iOS—in mind. Whether you are targeting an Android or iOS operating system will impact your strategy for developing the application.
There are two ways of developing mobile applications: native development, targeting a specific operating system, and cross-platform development, targeting multiple operating systems. Choosing between native or cross-platform development is one of the most important decisions in any mobile app project. This single decision has huge implications for the app’s design, the technologies used to create it, and ultimately, the users who can access it.
How to choose between native and cross-platform
The fundamental difference between native and cross-platform development stems from what operating system you are developing for. Native mobile development allows you to build apps for a particular operating system — either Android or iOS. Cross-platform mobile development, in contrast, allows you to build apps that target several operating systems.
Let’s explore the differences between native and cross-platform applications, how they are created, and their pros and cons before turning to what you should consider when determining which development method to use.
What is a native mobile application?
Native mobile apps are applications developed to target either Android or iOS. Depending on which operating system you are developing for, your applications are usually coded in a specific programming language.
You write native Android applications using the Java or Kotlin programming languages. Java was the first language used to create Android apps. Google introduced support for Kotlin on Android in 2017. Kotlin supports object-oriented and functional programming, while Java is limited to object-oriented programming.
If you are developing native iOS applications, you use the Objective-C or Swift programming languages. Objective-C is a superset of the C programming language. It is the first language used to write software running on iOS. Apple introduced Swift in 2014 during their World Wide Developer Conference. It is a powerful general-purpose, high-level programming language for the Apple ecosystem. Apple states that Swift is 2.6 times faster than Objective-C, and the syntax is easier to learn.
Some well-known examples of native mobile applications include:
- Google Maps
Native app tools
In addition to having operating system-specific software development kits (SDKs), native mobile development requires an integrated development environment (IDE).
For Android apps, you need to use Android Studio or IntelliJ IDEA. These tools work on Windows, macOS, or Linux. For iOS apps, you need to use Xcode or AppCode as your IDE. These tools work only on macOS.
Pros of native mobile applications
Building native mobile applications comes with a set of benefits. These include:
- Better performance: You create and optimize native apps for a specific platform. You also compile them using the platform’s core programming language and APIs. This makes them very fast, more efficient, and responsive to users’ actions.
- Tight security: Native apps can enhance the security of your user’s data. They have access to platform-specific built-in security features.
- Quality UX: Native apps have a smoother user input and output experience. The look and feel are consistent because they inherit the device’s OS interfaces. They follow design guides for the specific OS, making the flow of the app feel more natural.
- Full feature set access: Native mobile apps can access all features and functionalities of the device, providing a richer, more integrated user experience. They also gain access to services like push notifications, which are key to driving user engagement.
- Minimal bugs: Native app developers get access to updated SDKs as soon as they are released. These updates always ship with improvements and new features.
Cons of native mobile applications
Native mobile applications have a few drawbacks, though. Some disadvantages include:
- Cost: Native mobile applications are usually costly to deploy. You need to have separate teams of developers for the specific platforms. For example, you need developers proficient in Java or Kotlin to create a native Android app. You will also need extra Swift/Objective-C developers for native iOS.
- Development time: Separate teams working on similar apps for separate platforms take time. Maintenance and enhancements also require a lot of effort.
- Lack of code reusability: You have to create and keep code in separate projects to target different mobile operating systems.
What is a cross-platform mobile application?
You create cross-platform mobile applications from a single codebase. The goal of cross-platform app development is to target different operating systems with one project. You create these apps using cross-platform frameworks, which use platform-specific SDKs (Android SDKs and iOS SDKs) from a unified API. This enables you to easily access the different platform SDKs and libraries.
Private companies create these frameworks. Examples of popular cross-platform frameworks include:
- Flutter by Google. It uses Dart as the programming language.
- .NET MAUI by Microsoft (formerly Xamarin). It uses C# and XAML as the programming language.
Cross-platform mobile apps are usually compiled to use native UI elements that make the app feel native. As mentioned earlier, they provide an abstraction to the underlying platform SDKs. The exposed sensors include access to GPS, battery level, camera, and microphone.
Well-known examples of cross-platform mobile applications include:
- Instagram, Skype, Walmart, and Airbnb (React Native)
- Google Ads, My BMW App, eBay Motors, and the New York Times (Flutter)
- The World Bank, Fox Sports, Alaska Airlines, and BBC Good Food (Xamarin)
To deploy your app on Android, you still need to have Android SDK installed and a Windows, macOS, or Linux machine. For iOS, you still need to have iOS SDK, Xcode, and exclusively a macOS machine. Below is a list of IDEs that support the cross-platform frameworks mentioned previously:
- React Native mobile apps: VS Code, Android Studio, WebStorm, Xcode, and Atom
- Flutter mobile apps: VS Code, Android Studio, and IntelliJ
- .NET MAUI/Xamarin mobile apps: Visual Studio
Pros of cross-platform mobile applications
Creating cross-platform mobile applications can benefit you in the following ways:
- Low costs: Cross-platform mobile development needs only a single team of developers. They need to be knowledgeable in the chosen framework. The app reaches a wider audience to start gaining traction and testing the market.
- Code reusability: Cross-platform frameworks allow you to use a single codebase. This ensures consistency in the business logic used.
- Rapid development: By reusing code and improving productivity, you get to market faster. Cross-platform frameworks have also optimized the process of app testing during development.
- Easier maintenance: Updating a cross-platform app is easier. This is because you are dealing with a single codebase. All builds targeting the different platforms use the same code, ensuring consistency.
Cons of cross-platform mobile applications
Cross-platform mobile development addresses some of the disadvantages that native app development faces. Yet, it has its fair share of disadvantages:
- Larger digital footprint: Cross-platform apps are usually larger. You need to pay attention to the mobile optimization options available.
- Difficult integrations: Cross-platform frameworks do not integrate all platform-specific features. Some hardware-specific integrations like using GPUs might need skills in native app development.
- Lower performance: Cross-platform frameworks usually bundle a custom runtime to run your app. It is responsible for communicating with platform-specific services. This adds another layer of computation, which can lead to lower performance.
- Delayed platform features: New SDK releases typically include new features and updates. With cross-platform frameworks, you have to wait for a separate update to access these newer features.
Native versus cross-platform apps: Which is best?
The decision to develop a native or cross-platform app is crucial. There are several scenarios that benefit native over cross-platform apps and vice-versa. Carefully considering your audience, budget, development timeline, performance and security needs, and so on will help in the decision-making process.
Let’s look at a few areas to consider when determining which development method to use.
Time to market
This is a widespread concern for startups and new product lines. You want to ship the product early to start getting quality feedback from users. Cross-platform app development would be the best fit for this scenario, as it is quick to build and iterate. Native mobile development would be time-consuming and harder to maintain, which ultimately makes the time to market slower.
You need to consider the reputation of the business and the impact that losing users’ trust would have. The risks can be very high for certain types of mobile applications, such as banking apps. In these scenarios, native mobile development would be a better choice. It provides many built-in security features, including file encryption and intelligent fraud detection using specific OS libraries. While cross-platform mobile development is ideal for getting the app to market faster, native apps provide superior security, stability, and scalability.
Mobile apps can have high compute requirements — especially for games. For apps that need accelerated performance, native mobile development is often the best fit. Using cross-platform frameworks in this scenario would require extra effort and native app expertise. Optimizing performance for a specific operating system enables you to ensure your application runs as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Some companies have higher budgets than others to develop mobile apps. For lower budgets, opt for cross-platform apps, as you only need a small team. Cross-platform development also allows you to keep costs in check by reusing your code and projects.
To create a successful, stable, and well-received mobile application, you need to determine which operating system — or systems — you want your application to be compatible with. Although you can use both native and cross-platform development methods for Android and iOS operating systems, make sure you consider the tools, methods, benefits, and drawbacks for each method when developing your mobile application.
Whether your users are on Android or iOS operating systems, you need to ensure you create your application with security, performance, and scalability in mind. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to developing a mobile application. Neither cross-platform nor native development will be best-suited to every use case. Continually assess the unique needs of each mobile app project to determine if it is better suited for native or cross-platform, and consider the future plans for the application even when you are just getting started.
To learn how you can accelerate your mobile development by building, testing, and deploying your applications in the cloud, read more about continuous integration for mobile application development and get started with a free CircleCI account today.