Cross-platform vs. Native Mobile App Development: Choosing the Right Dev Tools for Your App Project

The global mobile app market — which is expected to top $ 77 billion this year — has undergone several major changes. Today, 99.6% of all smartphones run on either iOS or Android. Companies now treat mobile apps as a channel for raising brand awareness, not a business of its own. With the growing adoption of AI solutions (namely chatbots) and messengers, experts even start to question mobile apps’ future! Amid the controversy and chaos, the “native vs. cross-platform” mobile app development argument is hotter than ever. Should your company invest in a native application or make do with a cross-platform one? Pavel Vaskou, Head of iOS App Development Unit at R-Style Lab, highlights the key differences between cross-platfrom and native applications and explains why going hybrid might not be a good decision.

Cross-platform vs native apps: key differences

A native mobile app is an application which meets the requirements of a particular operating system by using its SDK (as well as hardware memory, gear and other applications installed on a device).

The advantages of native mobile apps include:

· High performance;

· Ultimate user experience;

· Greater app store visibility.

A cross-platform application is a mobile app which is compatible with multiple operating systems and can therefore run on any smartphone or tablet.

There are two types of cross-platform mobile applications:

· Native cross-platform apps. Each operating system has its SDK and major tech stack (Java for Android and Objective-C/Swift for iOS app development). An experienced mobile vendor, however, can create a unified API running on top of a native Software Development Kit and use the same codebase for both Android ad iOS apps. Native cross-platform applications are primarily built with Xamarin and Appcelerator Titanium;

· Hybrid HTML5 applications. Although mobile applications are designed for smartphones and tablets, it is backend servers (either on-prem or Cloud-based) that handle application logic. Since both iOS and Android SDKs feature advanced web components, skilled software engineers often utilize WebView to create parts of an application’s GUI (Graphical User Interface) with HTML5, CSS and JavaScript. The most popular hybrid app development framework is Apache Cordova (formerly known as PhoneGap).

Top cross-platform mobile app development tools

Apache Cordova, Xamarin and Unity account for 70% of the total cross-platform app development tools’ market.

· Apache Cordova. Apache Cordova’s tech stack features HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. The mobile app development framework provides access to a smartphone’s in-built accelerometer, file storage, GPS, contact data, media and notifications. Apache Cordova boasts several advantages including a fairly simple API and the opportunity to employ any JS framework. However, the platform visualizes an app’s UI through a web browser (which might cause lags). Also, some of Cordova’s plugins are dated, so developers often have to write custom ones from scratch;

· Xamarin. Built with #C and .Net, Xamarin allows developers to re-use code and simplifies the process of creating dynamic layouts in iOS. However, certain UI components can’t be implemented on MonoTouch and MonoDroid since they rely on Android/iOS specific features;

· Unity. Unity is a popular mobile app development engine enabling software engineers to craft high-quality 2D/3D applications (mostly games) for different platforms including Windows, iOS, Android and Xbox. Unity (alongside Unreal Engine) is considered one of the best tools for the presentation of 3D content. The solution features a plenty of free-to-use plugins and supports the development of custom shaders. Still, Unity has a steep learning curve, and its compilers are not well-optimized for ARM processors.

According to Pavel, the popularity of cross-platform mobile applications can be attributed to the growing demand for enterprise mobile applications (which will soon outstrip the available dev capacity by 500%) and the infamous Bring Your Own Device trend (through 2017, half of employers will require employees to use their own gadgets for work purposes).

When efficient resources utilization and shorter time to deployment outweigh UX, going cross-platform does make sense.

The pros & cons of cross-platform mobile app development

The advantages of building a cross-platform application include:

· Shorter dev time. Provided you choose the right tech stack and plan your project thoroughly, your vendor will be able to re-use up to 80% of the original codebase;

· Cost-effectiveness. Building a native mobile application will cost you at least $ 10 thousand — and there’s no talking about a Clash of Clans clone here. Multiply the cost by two (iOS and Android) and add 30% (Android dev is more expensive), and you’ll get the approximate cost of launching an application on both the App Store and Google Play;

· Exposure to a larger number of users. Most cross-platform apps run on both Android and iOS (as well as Windows, Linux, Tizen and even Symbian);

· Updates synchronization. In a world where successful app publishers roll out updates up to 4 times per months, maintenance costs can consume a great part of the entire app revenue — and that’s where cross-platform development wins.

And here’s where platform-independent applications fail:

· Performance issues. Smartphones’ computing power is relatively small. The rendering of heavy HTML5/CSS UI components, on the other hand, takes a lot of GPU/CPU resources and may increase an app’s response time;

· UX issues. Meeting both platforms’ UX requirements can be a challenge. Apple is particularly notorious about its Human Interface Guidelines and turns down mobile websites wrapped in native containers. However, it is bugs and poor UI design that account for 20% of all App Store rejections; provided you address a reliable mobile app development company, your HTML5 app will most likely get the green light.

Choosing between native and cross-platform applications

The choice between a cross-platform and native app depends on an app’s intended feature set and scope of application (no pun intended).

If your mobile app is supposed to become a business of its own (like fitness and healthcare or popular face-morphing apps), going native is an obvious choice. For companies that want to create a purely informative or content distribution application, cross-platform development may be just what the doctor ordered.

Back in 2012 Facebook, the world’s largest social networking company, replaced their HTML5 application with a native iOS title and labelled their hybrid endeavor as “the biggest mistake” they’ve ever made. According to Mick Johnson, former iOS Product Manager at Facebook, the decision to go native helped the company solve three major issues related to the app’s performance including the launch speed, scrolling through the News Feed and tapping images inside it. Facebook went on to release a native Android app later that year. The company has nothing against HTML5 — after all, the technology still powers their mobile website. However, it did not meet the company’s mobile app requirements — and might fail to meet yours. That’s why you should consult an experienced vendor and plan your mobile app strategy taking into account the expected workload and feature set.