Building an app, as we’ve seen in How To Develop An App From Scratch, is really not that hard. Like with every other project, the person – or people – in charge needs a plan of action. First, map the idea and research as much as possible – users, channels, market, etc. Second, find a fit team to work on the project. Third, and probably the trickiest step, find the right distribution channels and the proper tools. More specifically, which is better in your particular case – native vs cross-platform development?
But, since two apps are never the same, regardless of their similarities, this is always a challenge. So, today we will discuss the pros and cons of each approach – native or cross-platform. Then we will look into when and how should we decide the right strategy for any given situation. Let’s dive in.
Native Development – Pros and Cons
Native development is the traditional way of building mobile apps and uses the same technology as the operating system of each mobile platform. For example, Google’s Android is developed in a programming language called Java, so naturally, Android developers learn Java. Apple developers or iOS developers learn Swift, the same programming language behind all Apple operating systems.
Since Java and Swift are very different technologies, native mobile development is also classified based on the OS, and not the practice. In other words, most times an iOS developer doesn’t do the work of an Android developer, or vice-versa. Each of them knows their respective technologies and stick with them.
Pros with Native Development
The three main advantages of building native applications are the native feel, the app’s performance, and native functionality. Starting with the first, users of Android or iOS devices are used to specific UI elements. Native applications are simply more familiar for them, hence more intuitive and easier to use.
Then, we have the performance. Since the app uses the same programming language as the operating system, there is no compatibility conflict between the two. So the app is usually faster, and more scalable than some cross-platform applications. Finally, native functionality is readily available for developers and is created by the teams behind each operating system. In simple terms, think of the native features as building blocks that developers take and put together. These building blocks are developed by Google and Apple teams. They have been written, checked, and double-checked, then tested and retested. So the chances of bugs and errors in the code are significantly slimmer.
Cons with Native Development
Building a native app for more than one platform is the same as building two different apps. Each version requires its own developer – or developers depending on the size and complexity of the app. This means that building an iOS and an Android native app will cost twice as much. And then there is the matter or bugs and errors, and implicitly testing. Each codebase is different, so each developer will have their own bugs. They also have to do their individual tests and so on. Basically, everything – time, costs, errors, risks, etc – multiplies by the amount of the platforms you choose to go with.
Cross-Platform Development – Pros and Cons
However, in more recent years a new type of cross-platform application arose, the progressive web application – or PWA. Progressive web applications are just that, web apps that run in the browser, but they look and act like regular mobile apps. More importantly, due to their nature, PWAs are extremely lightweight and fast and, unlike other cross-platform tools, they can use a plethora of different web technologies.
Pros with Cross-Platform Development
Both hybrid technologies, like React Native or Ionic, and Progressive Web Apps have the same codebase for all operating systems. Developers only slightly adjust each version to match the native feel. In fact, since progressive web apps are basically web pages, developers don’t need to do anything extra. They simply write the code once, and that’s it. Like magic, it works on any operating system.
This significantly reduces the costs and development time, as a cross-platform mobile developer can build both versions of the app. Not to mention that having one codebase means that developers spend less time on basic testing and bug fixing.
Cons with Cross-Platform Development
On the downside, cross-platform technologies only replicate native functionality and UI. Remember we said native developers have every native functionality readily available? Well, this is not the case for hybrid developers. They have to wait for the community that maintains each technology to replicate the native features, test them, and then release them. In other words, hybrids are always a step or two behind natives when speaking of features.
Also, while progressive web app developers have all the functionality of a web application at the tip of their fingers, there is still one problem. Users really want that native feel. And since progressive web applications are basically webpages, they will never feel like native applications.
Should I Choose Native or Cross-Platform development?
At the end of the day, the main differences between cross-platform development and native development are technology, time, and costs. Usually, these factors are what make or break an app. But, in all of our years of experience with technology, we noticed two other common factors that push apps into the ground – overthinking a project and cutting corners. Both of them, while at opposite sides, can ruin a brilliant project forever.
Basically, if an application with complicated functionality is rushed to the market before it is ready, it will fail. The same goes for overthinking simple projects that – in some cases – never even make it. So yes, the choice between native vs cross-platform may depend on time, budget, and technology. But it also depends very much on the application, its features, and its expected growth.
Take Facebook as an example. When Facebook decided to go mobile, they needed a scalable, stable app, so they used native technologies. They had the developers, the time, and all the resources they needed. But the app still failed because the technologies they used couldn’t cope with the complexity of the app. So they had to backup, and invest a lot more time and money in rebuilding it – along with a brand new technology, but that’s beside the point.
WhatsApp on the other hand didn’t have the resources or the developers. Jan Koum built the backend of the app himself. The iOS developer who helped him was hired from an online platform. But they focused on one core functionality and they perfected it. The scalable native technologies also worked well for WhatsApp when their user base exploded from every year to the next.
The moral of the story
Both native development and cross-platform development have their advantages and disadvantages. But the important thing is, don’t overthink your project and listen to your technical team. They know best what technologies can or cannot do, and they will help make the decision.
Also, don’t cut corners and never compromise your users’ experience. Start small, focusing on one core feature that sets your app apart. Your users will appreciate the simplicity of the app and a nice experience. If you’re unsure about your idea, create a basic MVP or a functional prototype. They are cheaper than a full app and you can send it to any stakeholder you can think. The more feedback you collect, the better you will understand what your users want and where to start.
And if you are still unsure which is better for you – native vs cross-platform – write us a message and let’s have a chat. Don’t let your billion-dollar idea go to waste. Who knows, maybe you will create the new Facebook or WhatsApp.