Cross-Platform Mobile Development in 2021

The Mobile industry has been growing exponentially since Steve Jobs introduced the first smartphone to the world in 2007.

Today, dominated by the Android and iOS platforms, the mobile industry has overtaken the Desktop computer industry.  That is why many developers are searching for how to develop cross-platform mobile apps. 

This article aims to explain mobile app development and point programmers to platforms and resources that enhance cross-platform app development. 

Here are vital points we shall be considered in this article.

  • Introducing Cross-Platform Mobile Development.
  • The Three Cross-Platform Development Options
  • The Benefits and Drawbacks of Cross-Platform Development
  • The Top Cross-Platform Mobile Development Frameworks
  • Best Backend Services for Cross-Platform Apps

Introducing Cross-Platform Mobile Development

The reason why developers are searching for how to develop cross platform mobile apps is simple -it allows them to create a single code and deploy it to multiple mobile platforms.  

Previously, developers can choose to create an app either for Android or iOS, not both platforms.  So, cross-platform development opens a new world of possibilities for developers around the world.

The Three Cross-Platform Development Options

There are three main options for achieving cross-platform development. 

These channels are as follows.

Web Apps

Although web apps have several limitations, it remains the most straightforward channels for creating cross-platform apps. Although web apps cannot take advantage of several native mobile features, the app can be used on desktops and any mobile platform.

Here are some facts about web apps; it lacks app store integration, lowers performance, and can’t enjoy file system integration or notifications on iOS.  However, the features available on web apps serve the need of many apps. Novel resources such as Web APIs enhanced PWA functions and enhanced performance has also made web apps less inferior to native apps.  

Hybrid Apps

Just as the name implies, hybrid apps include both features of Web and native app components.  In essence, the developers leverage web tools and APIs to create apps that work with app stores.  However, this development option also has its setbacks. 

In a practical sense, hybrid apps are basically web apps running inside native WebView with some native API bindings.  As such, the performance of hybrid apps is less than stellar compared to the native alternatives. 

As you would expect, the native APIs access is restricted to the ones the hybrid framework supports. So, implementing native features will require native development know-how, or access to third-party plugins. 

Despite its limitations, hybrid apps offer a fast and straightforward channel of adding native experience to an existing web app.

Native Apps

The third option is cross-platform native development. This approach uses purpose-built frameworks to create a global abstraction layer on native platforms.

A typical example is React Native that uses the JavaScript runtime to run JS code. The developer simply uses React and native APIs to create UIs and native functions for apps. 

With this type of architecture, developers can create cross-platform apps that offer native features and enhanced performance compared to web and hybrid apps. 

A framework like React Native allows the developer to execute JS code freely, but cannot use HTML or CSS. As a workaround, developers must use alternative technologies implemented by their preferred framework.  

Compared to web and native app development, cross-platform native development also places more demand on native development know-how.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Cross-Platform Development

Having discussed the various options for cross-platform development, let’s consider the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to app development. 

The Benefits

Hybrid and native cross-platform development offer the following benefits:

  • Quicker Development: Since the app platforms will be using a single code base for development and a scripting language like JavaScript, development is faster. 
  • Native Experience: Given the native functions in this type of apps, they offer a similar user experience as native apps.
  • Performance Improvements: Apps created with cross-platform development frameworks like React Native offer better performance than web apps. 

The Drawbacks

  • Native Apps are Faster: The performance of native apps is superior to cross-platform apps created with React Native or Flutter.  The V8 runtime of React Native or the subpar compilation of Flutter cannot provide the same performance as native. While the difference is not noticeable in the average app, it becomes apparent in graphics/processor-intensive applications. 
  • Limited Features:  The native features that cross-platform development platforms support are often little. They often lack support for one native function or another. 
  • Pre-requisite Knowledge: You must have some sort of native development knowledge to create API abstraction or handle the app compilation. While cross-platform development is faster than creating separate codes for Android and iOS, the knowledge requirements are almost identical.

The Top Cross-Platform Mobile Development Frameworks

For the developers interested in learning how to develop cross platform mobile apps, we shall be reviewing the top seven cross-platform development frameworks in the world today.

React Native

Many developers prefer React Native because it makes it simple for experienced web developers to create mobile apps. This platform enjoys the support of a vast community of developers; it also has several helpful development tools.  For instance, the Expo Framework and many other APIs and UI libraries add value to React Native development assignments. 

Besides the support from the development community, the excellent performance and close-to-native appearance of React Native apps is a significant plus for the platform.  Other features like Fast Refresh and a styling system look like CSS makes the platform lovable among developers. 

However, developers unfamiliar with JavaScript and React may find it challenging to develop mobile apps with React Native.  Other drawbacks include difficulty in debugging React Native apps, and less than stellar performance compared to native apps. 

In addition, the developer may need to rev up native development skills to implement features that are not available on the Expo Framework and other third-party development tools.  However, this cannot be an issue while developing an average app.

Flutter

Flutter was created by Google for web and cross-platform app development. The roadmap of Flutter developers shows that the platform will soon develop apps for desktop devices. 

Flutter, which was launched in 2017and uses the Dart programming language, is touted as a comprehensive solution for app development.  It offers native APIs, UI widgets, and other helpful development tools.

If you would like to try out this platform, you will love the features, such as hot reloading and UI components to create a native-like interface for your app.  You will also have access to access native APIs that give the app native-like performance after compiling it. 

Flutter has its own drawbacks, mainly because the platform is relatively new in the app development industry. Therefore, it is considered immature. So, the platform has fewer guides and user-generated content, you may experience some glitches in performance.

While the Flutter community has grown substantially, it is still relatively small compared to other open-source platforms.  After compiling Flutter, the package would be somewhat heavier when compared to the one developed natively.

You should bear in mind that the in-built Material/Cupertino widget components may not function exactly like the native ones, especially when developing iOS. 

Ionic

Ionic offers a suite of tools and features for developing hybrid apps. Ionic has all the tools you need to convert an existing web app or create a new one.

One of the unique features of ionic is that it outputs a truly native-like interface for Android and iOS without modifying the web app’s code.  This feature is possible through the Capacitor runtime that Ionic uses to create hybrid apps.  The platform also gives you access to several official and community-powered plugins that make native features possible. 

The features of Ionic is not limited to creating a runtime for web apps; it offers several UI components and a command-line interface for managing your projects. The design of the UI components aligns with the Android and iOS UI guidelines. That is why they look and feel like native components.  Ionic uses Vanilla JavaScript, Angular, Vue, or React to implement UIs so you can have the best experience. 

While Ionic brings extensive value to native app development, its hybrid approach to developing apps is somewhat a drawback.  As discussed earlier, hybrid apps offer limited native features and subpar performance.  In any case, it is an excellent option when speed, single codebase development is a priority when converting existing web apps to mobile.  

Xamarin

Microsoft is the developer and owner of Xamarin, and depends on programming concepts of C# and the dot net framework.  Xamarin has been in existence since 2012 and is considered one of the most developed cross-platform development frameworks.

The maturity of Xamarin and the power of .Net Framework gives it an edge over competitors.  The integrated Xamarin Essentials has a massive collection of APIs for cross-platform development. All these tools work together to help developers create native-like apps. In fact, the function called Xamarin.Form can develop apps for other platforms besides Android and iOS. 

The integrated.Net makes Xamarin more powerful, allowing developers to access native SDKs for Android and iOS within Xamarin. The fact that both Xamarin and Flutter use a specific programming language makes them similar. Besides, both platforms provide APIs, cross-platform development tools, and much more. However, Xamarin is matured compared to Flutter. 

Xamarin’s maturity gives developers access to quality development tools, excellent docs and well, established guidelines. However, it’s somewhat stagnant compared to the newer Flutter that is evolving and enjoying massive adoption among developers. Other drawbacks in Xamarin include a few technical glitches and the large size of Xamarin apps caused by the cross-platform frameworks bundles. 

Xamarin is getting more development attention lately; for instance, the .Net platform unifies Android and iOS native bindings. Perhaps, this development will renew interest in this framework among app developers. 

Unity

Unity is unique among the cross-platform frameworks in the world today because of its integrated game engine. So, if you are looking to create an app with 2D and 3D functions, it’s best to select a game-engine powered framework. 

Apart from the game engine, Unity offers several other features such as GUI-based development, APIs, and extensive documentation. This platform also has a large community of developers providing valuable resources like scripts, packages, and development assets. 

Given that Unity is a game engine, it is not the best choice for most app development projects. Instead, it is a purpose-built framework for developing and scaling gaming apps. That said, let’s look at some drawbacks in Unity.

It’s quite challenging to build a complex user interface or develop clean code in Unity. However, these issues are insignificant while making simple games in Unity. However, it is recommended to use other powerful tools like Unreal Engine to develop a gaming app with advanced functions. 

The platform-specific development style, user experience, and licensing model make Unity to stand out among other cross-platform development frameworks. With most Game development frameworks, Unity is not free; they only offer a free tier with limited features and Unity branding. You’ll need to pay to remove the branding and access advanced features. 

Best Backend Services for Cross-Platform Apps

It is essential to note that an excellent backend is vital to the success of any app development project. Therefore, you will need to take the time to select the right one for your cross-platform development project. 

The backend refers to programs that reside on the server, handling vital application processes such as database communication, API transaction, authentication, notifications, and much more.   A reliable, scalable, and easy-to-use backend is crucial for cross-platform apps since data synching is often required.

Here are the top backends for cross-platform development frameworks. 

Back4App

Back4app is an easy-to-use backend platform that required minimal coding. It is based on the opensource Parse technology and offers all the resources you need to develop a cross-platform app. 

The features of Back4app include database, storage, authentication, REST API, GraphQL API, backup, autoscaling, app management dashboard, and much more. All these functions empower the developer to focus on front-end development assignments.

Back4app provides a free plan, while premium plans start from $5 per month. 

Firebase

Firebase is one of the well-established Backend as a Service platforms today.  The Google-powered service offers several modern features such as real-time database, authentication, APIs, cloud functions, and many more. The extensive documentation and community of enthusiastic developers are beneficial for new Firebase developers. 

Firebase offers a free plan called Spark, while Blaze, the only premium plan is priced according to resource usage.  This platform is excellent for developing small apps, but the cost of managing an app mounts up quickly once the app starts to scale. As a proprietary platform, users find it challenging to move Firebase app to another cloud service. In essence, they are permanently locked into Firebase.

Heroku

Heroku is a Platform as a Service that gives developers extensive control over the cloud service. With Heroku, developers get managed cloud solutions consisting of databases, containers, and lots more. Heroku offers the freedom to select the components you need for your development project. 

While Heroku requires a level of hands-on tasks to get up and running, it is beneficial for complex development projects with unique requirements.  The platform offers a free tier, while the paid plans start at $7 per month. 

Conclusion

Developers who want to learn how to develop cross platform mobile apps can choose from several reliable frameworks. However, they must take the time to research the best option based on the project requirements and the future developmental needs. 

Hybrid app development approach is good for converting exiting web apps. It is fast, but offers limited native functions. Cross-platform development is an excellent choice for building MVPs.

After that, the developer may decide to continue with the cross-platform development approach or switch to native development to incorporate more native features.

Finally, it is essential to have a reliable backend because it enhances the functions of any cross-platform development framework you decide to use.  With a Backend as a Service or Platform as a service, the hassles of managing servers will not be an issue.

FAQ

What are the cross-platform development options?

You can choose a web, hybrid, or native app development approach.

What are the benefits of cross-platform development?

The app development project is faster, offers a native-like experience, and performs better than web apps.

What are the demerits of cross-platform development?

It offers limited features, performance is subpar compared to native development, and native development know-how is still required. 

What are the top cross-platform development frameworks?

– Unity
– Flutter
– Ionic
– Xamarin
– React Native

What are the best backend services for cross-platform development?

– Back4app
– Heroku 
– Firebase


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