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Cross-platform vs. native mobile development: how to choose and why

Your future app’s platform is one of the critical factors for that decision. So, should you opt for cross-platform development or stick to native solutions?

24 July, 2023
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Ever since smartphones have become such a staple for communication and entertainment, mobile app developers prioritize the user experience by considering the smartphone's operating system, such as Android or iOS. This choice significantly influences the development strategy.

We’ve now established that choosing a tech stack for mobile app development can be a make-or-break moment for your project. Your future app’s platform is one of the critical factors for that decision. So, should you opt for cross-platform development or stick to native solutions? This mobile app design company will show you all the nuances and trade-offs between these popular development methods.

Stay tuned for the next exciting topic in our Merge blog. This time it's the contrast of Deep Learning vs. Machine Learning to better understand their applications and potential.

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What is cross-platform mobile development?

Cross-platform mobile applications are developed using a single codebase, aiming to target various operating systems. This process utilizes HTML and CSS for the app's structure and design, while JavaScript is used for logic and interactivity.

The initial development focuses on a common foundation, which is then tailored to each platform using specialized building tools. This approach enables the app to be compatible with various operating systems by employing reusable code that can be easily shared and applied.

Cross-platform apps utilize cross-platform frameworks that leverage platform-specific SDKs, like Android SDKs and iOS SDKs, through a unified API. Examples of such frameworks include React Native, Flutter, and .NET MAUI. By compiling native UI elements, these apps offer a native-like experience while providing access to sensors like GPS, battery level, camera, and microphone.

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What is native mobile development?

Native app development focuses on building applications exclusively for a specific operating system. As a result, separate applications are created for different platforms using languages native to each system.

For native Android app development, Java or Kotlin programming languages are employed. When developing native iOS applications, developers use either Objective-C or Swift.

Consequently, businesses end up with two distinct applications that share similarities in appearance and functionality but differ internally. Native apps enable advanced interactions due to their responsive nature and the ability to access system resources, features, and other elements.

Native approach vs. cross-platform: broad differences

Some notable examples of native mobile applications include Google Maps, Pinterest, Spotify, and WhatsApp, and cross-platform apps - Instagram, Skype, and Google Ads. Why did the creators of those applications follow either one of the approaches? Here are the main differences between going native vs. cross-platform.

Native approach vs. cross-platform: broad differences
Native approach vs. cross-platform: broad differences

Performance

Native mobile development allows optimal performance as the app is built specifically for a particular platform, leveraging platform-specific features and APIs, resulting in faster and more efficient execution.

Cross-platform development sacrifices a bit of performance due to the abstraction layer that bridges multiple platforms. However, advancements in cross-platform frameworks have significantly narrowed the performance gap.

Time to market

The time to market for native mobile development tends to be a bit longer. Each platform requires separate development, testing, and deployment processes, leading to a more time-consuming development cycle.

The cross-platform approach offers faster time to market as a single codebase can be utilized for multiple platforms. Development, testing, and deployment can be streamlined, allowing for simultaneous release on different platforms.

Developer expertise required

Native mobile development typically requires specialized expertise in platform-specific programming languages and familiarity with the respective development environments, which means in-depth knowledge of APIs, frameworks, and design guidelines.

Cross-platform development eases the developer expertise requirement, allowing professionals with web development skills to leverage their existing knowledge and develop apps for multiple platforms.

Impact on app complexity

Native development provides more flexibility and control over the app's functionality, allowing for intricate and sophisticated features. The app is tailored specifically for each platform, and complex app requirements, such as advanced animations or hardware integration, can be implemented more seamlessly.

Going cross-platform poses challenges when dealing with highly complex app requirements. Intricate and platform-specific features may require additional workarounds or custom implementations. However, cross-platform development can handle complexity effectively for most standard app functionalities and provide a consistent user experience across platforms.

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Development costs

Development costs for native mobile development tend to be higher since building separate codebases for each platform requires more resources, time, and expertise. Maintenance and updates must also be carried out separately, increasing long-term costs.

The cross-platform approach offers cost advantages through code reusability. A single codebase reduces development time and effort, lowering upfront costs. Maintenance and updates can also be more efficient and cost-effective, as changes only need to be made once.

App security

App security in native development benefits from the platform-specific security features and APIs provided by the operating systems. Native development allows for fine-grained control over security measures, including data encryption, secure storage, and user authentication.

App security in cross-platform development relies on the security measures provided by the underlying frameworks. Even though they may not have the same level of platform-specific security features as native development, adopting best practices in secure coding, encryption, and data handling can help mitigate risks.

Customization & UX

Native development offers high customization and control over the user experience. Developers can leverage platform-specific design elements, UI/UX guidelines, and native capabilities to better utilize animations, transitions, and user interactions.

Cross-platform development balances customization and maintaining a consistent UX across platforms. While it may not offer the same level of platform-specific customization as native development, cross-platform frameworks like React Native and Flutter provide UI components that can be customized to match the desired look and feel.

Ease of development

Native development can be more complex and requires platform-specific expertise, making it less straightforward for developers unfamiliar with the specific platforms. However, it benefits from comprehensive documentation, extensive libraries, and established development tools provided by the platform.

Cross-platform development offers a higher level of ease and simplicity compared to native. Developers can leverage their existing web development skills and utilize cross-platform frameworks that provide a unified development environment and reusable codebase.

Ease of testing

Native development typically offers a more straightforward and comprehensive testing process. Testing tools, frameworks, and libraries specific to each platform are readily available, allowing developers to conduct thorough testing, including unit testing, integration testing, and UI testing.

Cross-platform development may introduce some challenges in testing due to variations in platform behavior. However, code sharing and simultaneous testing on multiple platforms can enhance testing efficiency. Advancements in cross-platform testing tools, such as Appium and Detox, have also improved the testing experience.

Customizations in the app

Native development allows for extensive customizations within the app. Developers can tailor the app's look, feel, and behavior to match specific platform guidelines or unique branding requirements.

Cross-platform development offers some level of customization within the app. And while it's not yet at the same level as native, numerous frameworks allow quite a decent level of customization for the UI elements, styles, and behavior to achieve the desired look and feel.

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When should you choose cross-platform app development?

There are specific scenarios where native mobile development is preferable. Choose native development if:

  • Your app targets a specific audience (Android or iOS).
  • The user interface plays a critical role, though you can explore multiplatform solutions that share app logic but not UI.
  • Your team comprises skilled Android and iOS developers, and introducing new technologies is challenging.
  • Your app requires full access to phone resources and services, prioritizes responsiveness, and leverages hardware capabilities.
  • You want easy updates and future feature enhancements.

When should you choose native app development?

Cross-platform development is ideal for building Android and iOS apps efficiently. Opt for cross-platform if:

  • You need to develop for both Android and iOS.
  • Time optimization is a priority.
  • You want a single codebase for app logic while maintaining UI control (available in select cross-platform frameworks).
  • A slightly less responsive app is acceptable.
  • Your app has straightforward logic and doesn't involve complex animations.
  • There's a tight timeframe for testing your idea and hypotheses in the app market.

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The right choice for your app

In conclusion, when aiming to develop a mobile application that is successful and stable, decide which operating system(s) your application should be compatible with. While both native and cross-platform development approaches can be used for Android and iOS systems, it is important to carefully consider the tools, methods, advantages, and disadvantages associated with each method during the development process.

Since neither cross-platform nor native development will be the perfect fit for every scenario, it is vital to consistently evaluate the specific requirements of each mobile app project to determine what approach is more suitable while also considering future plans for your application from the initial stages.

author

CEO and Founder of Merge

My mission is to help startups build software, experiment with new features, and bring their product vision to life.

My mission is to help startups build software, experiment with new features, and bring their product vision to life.

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