cross-platform app development

Cross-Platform App Development

What to consider when developing a cross-platform application.

When a company or business wants to launch an app the team must first consider such elements as design, user experience (UX), and how to get the app to market as quickly as possible. The ultimate goal of an app is typically to get the application into as many hands as possible.

As companies consider the goals, time, and budget constraints when building mobile applications for their business needs one big decision comes to mind: deciding between creating a native app for each mobile platform or using cross-platform app frameworks. Although there is no way for a user to know whether the application was developed using native app development or a cross-platform language there are pros and cons to each depending on the resources available to your team.

What is a Cross-Platform Application?

A cross-platform application is a mobile application developed to be used on multiple device platforms. The most common platforms are iOS and Android, but Windows and Google have launched their own mobile platforms for their devices. Cross-platform as described in this article is when an application is developed using a cross-platform language or plugin.

When a business is considering mobile app development cross-platform offers an expedited way to build the application, hence, a quicker release and quicker turnaround time on profits or user experience. The ability to reuse a significant amount of code with cross-platform frameworks allows developers to concentrate time on testing and feature development.

How are Native Apps Different?

Native apps are applications for mobile devices that are built for a specific platform. An entire app’s structure must be written for each platform the app will be launched on. Simply put, an application written for an Android device will not function on an iOS device and vise versa. Oftentimes, mobile app developers specialize in specific languages and platforms. The developer working on the application will be well versed in how to maximize the implementation of UI and UX for the platform they specialize in.

Mobile application languages offer software development kits (SDKs) which contains a compiler, a debugger, and other development tools. Android applications mainly support Java and most iOS development uses Swift or Objective-C.

The major advantages of native development include:

  • Increased performance and stability of the application. It is easier to scale apps, and there are fewer restrictions on functionality. *could clarify what scale means in this context*
  • Better user experience. The interfaces are recognizable to users.
  • Easier release process. The features of a native app are expected to meet the standard requirements outlined by Apple App Store and Google Play.
  • Software Development Kits (SDKs) for developers. Native programming languages provide “out of the box” solutions that are regularly updated and maintained for each given operating system.
  • The ability of the app to function offline. If internet connectivity is not available for users of the app, then the availability of data connectivity.

The disadvantage of native app development:

  • Separate code bases. If you want your app to be cross-platform you must build entirely separate code bases for each platform. This takes more time and can be more costly, but if you choose only one platform you lose a huge part of the mobile market.
  • Maintenance and update cost. Special thought needs to be given to the update process and development needs Completely separate applications have to be developed, maintained, and deployed to the platform’s app stores.

The disadvantages of native app development boil down to costs; the development costs of having multiple apps running simultaneously on each platform will be higher. That said, the advantages of having a smooth, fast, and flawless native mobile application have to be considered, as this will be preferred by users.

Origins of Cross-Platform Framework

Late in the 90s, Java was launched as the first “write once, run anywhere” language. Pre-2015, the term used to describe mobile applications that were packaged for release on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store was called hybrid. Hybrid is still used across some developer communities. These mobile apps are written in HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, and then wrapped in a native shell which caused performance to suffer. Users do not use an app that is clunky, slow, or huge.

cross-platform app development

Why Use Cross-Platform App Frameworks?

If native apps work best within the requirements and functionality laid out by iOS and Android development, then why the need to create a mobile application using cross-platform app frameworks?

The main reason why companies are considering multi-platform app development is to create one app for all platforms. Mobile applications developed using cross-platform tools have a “shared operating environment”. Developers only need to maintain a single code base.

The advantages of cross-platform development are simple:

  • Fewer developers are involved. Developer resources can be utilized more efficiently.
  • Less costly. Fewer developers often lead to a reduction in cost.
  • Faster launch. The timeline for launching a cross-platform app is significantly less than a native app.

The main drawback of cross-platform development is the lack of tools available. A true leader in cross-platform app frameworks has not reached the forefront of the market as of 2020. There are multiple options available, including Xamarin, Cordova, and React Native, and more being developed, like Flutter which just launched in July 2020.

When launching a mobile application the goal is to have the application be accessible through Google Play and Apple’s App Store. Using cross-platform frameworks is more challenging in the process of acceptance to the stores; each additional update to the application will require an approval process which can cause a bottleneck to release.

Questions to ask when developing cross-platform mobile applications

What platform does your audience use most frequently?
If your application is intended to be used by a wider audience with a range of devices, will launching the application with issues be acceptable to the end-user? For internal applications where users will have access to company-issued devices iPads or Tablets then considerations for that need to be addressed.

Will the application be graphic intensive?
All of the cross-platform frameworks discussed here have one thing in common- they lose performance and functionality around graphic-heavy applications like mobile games.

What is the importance of Native UI/UX?
Users of the app have expectations about the experience. If your app doesn’t meet the expectations of users they simply won’t use it.

What is the application’s functionality?
Cross-platform frameworks do not support every feature of a mobile device. Will your app need to use the camera? If so native code has to be built into the mobile application to use that functionality.

Will your application utilize third-party modules?
Many cross-platform frameworks use third-party modules or libraries which poses some risk to building an application. Support for these applications will evolve over time and updating your application on Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store can be challenging for cross-development applications.

Who will develop the app?
Do you have a staff of in house developers? What does your current team’s tech stack look like? Are the resources available to hire in-house developers or will this application need to be outsourced? Are there any restrictions on hiring an outsourced team or firm to work on the app?

If a company chooses to use cross-platform frameworks when building the mobile portion of their business here are several tools and frameworks available and many new frameworks becoming more widely adopted. Some examples of cross-platform frameworks are discussed below.

Tools for Cross-App Platform Framework

Xamarin

As one of the first of its kind, Xamarin was released in 2011. After its acquisition by Microsoft in 2016 Xamarin gained credibility and traction in the developer community and became trusted by enterprise partners. Xamarin is not just a cross-platform mobile development framework, it is also used for desktop applications. The coding language for Xamarin is the Microsoft developed C#.

xamarin Cross-Platform App Frameworks

Microsoft Visual Studio Xamarin apps are native apps that allow developers to design a uniform UI for all platforms. With more than 75% of the code being the same regardless of the platform of the mobile application and Xamarin being able to leverage platform-specific hardware acceleration it is no wonder that that is used by millions of developers worldwide.

Apps Built with Xamarin:

Cordova

Cordova describes itself as a mobile application development framework, also known as PhoneGap (which is an offering under the Apache Cordova suite of tools). Its claim to fame is that it allows developers to use their HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code to create a native application for mobile platforms.

cordova multi platform app development

Upon reviewing the tools and libraries, Cordova looks like a simple solution to create native applications for a cross-platform application. However, once a developer gets into the weeds, they might find themselves spending more time than anticipated addressing platform-specific quirks, especially if they have limited experience with Cordova.

Apps using Cordova:

Near-Native platforms like React Native and Flutter are gaining popularity and offering Native-like experiences. Developers are able to write the application in Javascript, a well known and recognized language, but have the full experience of a native app. However, using Javascript in place of the natively supported language comes with its own performance issues.

React Native

Built by Facebook, written in JavaScript and rendered in native code React Native claims to combine the best parts of native development in a cross-platform framework. The React Native has an extensive community presence and has a strong presence on platforms like GitHub.

Getting started with React Native for a new mobile application is pretty easy. Though this can get tricky when trying to integrate it into a native application. Should you already have an application for iOS and want to build one that is supported on all mobile platforms with React Native.

To use some functionality on a mobile application like the camera or accelerometer separate native code is required for each mobile platform. Because React Native is Javascript based performance and speed are degraded and memory can be an issue.

Apps using React Native:

Ionic

Ionic is an open-source UI toolkit for mobile applications in both native, cross-platform, and web app experiences. It is licensed under MIT which makes use of HTML5 for translation. Ionic framework allows developers to build with their favorite frameworks. Focusing on the user interface of the mobile application allows the app to feel native to the user.

ionic framework for cross-platform app development

Functionality like camera and Bluetooth need to access native plugins. Ionic is not recommended for high graphic mobile applications such as video games.

Apps using Ionic:

Flutter

Built by Google using their UI toolkit, opensource, and well documented. Many developers consider Flutter to be the best option when considering a simple mobile application or building an MVP for a startup. App size is a big concern when using Flutter due to its use of built-in widgets. As it is the newest framework many developers are still weighing the pros and cons of Flutter.

flutter framework for cross-platform development

Apps using Flutter: (besides Google)

Challenges to cross-platform development when developing an application with either method

Testing a cross-platform application is considerably more difficult than testing for a single platform. Even in a native app development environment, it is difficult to anticipate slightly different behaviors for each platform or subtle bugs (enhancements).

When a developer is building the application in order for the application to function simultaneously across multiple platforms the developers are often unable to use the most advanced features of each language. This affects the application’s performance, speed, and how user friendly the application is considered by users.

Each platform has different user interface conventions, which would prove problematic to an application developer when designing a mobile application using native or cross-platform methods. For example, the simple act of going “back” in an application is completely different on iOS and Android. If a developer chooses not to conform to these conventions users would view the application as useless and would simply not use the application.

Uncoupling your mobile application from a cross-platform framework is a frequent criticism among the development community. Once you’ve created a mobile application using Xamarian or React Native, you no longer have the option to use the same code within another framework.

Read also: How to Make Your Own Alcohol Delivery App

Native App Development vs. Cross-Platform App Frameworks

The end goal of almost any mobile application is that it needs to be available on as many platforms as possible. Cross-Platform app frameworks are not an option for every mobile application. The developer community is divided; some experts prefer native app development and others support the cross-platform framework community. Whether to build a native or cross-platform app remains a question that developers can consider and regularly reconsider.

In 2020, many retailers are adding mobile pickup and curbside services to allow for the contactless delivery of goods and services. This has caused many retailers to revisit their mobile platform applications. Since time is of the essence, they will be looking to cross-platform app frameworks as a time-saving and low-cost option for building applications that work across all mobile platforms.

On one hand, companies like UPS, Facebook, Tesla, Walmart, and Skype are moving to cross-platform app development. Then you have Airbnb who announced that “Due to a variety of technical and organizational issues” it would be moving from React Native to fully native development.

At IDScan.net, we have built SDKs for Android, iOS to create native applications for businesses and their ID scanning needs. These tools are tested, documented, and our developer tools are free to allow for proof of concept.

At the same time, our team has created tools using Xamarin and a Cordova plugin for those parties considering cross-platform solutions. While each option has its pros and cons, we believe the tools should be in the hands of the company, and that they should decide which option is the best fit.

Native mobile development languages and cross-platform frameworks have large communities who continue to take advantage of the unique workflows of each solution. Additional consideration should be given to the developer or development team building the application. How each framework considers their developer experience and support is crucial to building a successful mobile application.

If you want to get more details about integrating ID Scanning solutions into your application, drop us a message. We’re always happy to help.