When starting a new mobile app project, there are multiple things to consider to make your product successful. One of the important decisions to make is selecting the appropriate tools to build your app. There is a wide range of available solutions, and picking one way to develop your app might be challenging and time-consuming.
The process of selecting a framework involves several factors that need to be considered. These include the app’s purpose, development team, cross-platform compatibility, performance and speed, cost of development, and level of support and community around the framework.
Whether the app is designed for business or entertainment, the functionality and features should align with the goals and strategy. This will help narrow down the choices of the available frameworks, as some frameworks are better suited for specific types of apps and can significantly determine the available future business development plans and the speed of implementing new features.
With the increasing use of multiple devices and platforms, it is essential to ensure that the app can run smoothly across different platforms. You should also take into consideration that you may need it to support multiple platforms, such as Android and iOS, as well as different devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
Hence developing cross-platform apps eliminates the need to create separate versions of the app for different platforms, saving time and resources while ensuring a consistent user experience across other devices and operating systems.
How to decide which cross-platform app framework will be best for the particular project? Even if you choose to use a cross-platform approach over the native one, there is still a massive number of available frameworks that can produce mobile apps for Android and iOS with a shared codebase. Discover the best cross-platform mobile development frameworks and find the one that suits your case.
What are the top cross-platform app development frameworks?
The rise of cross-platform development tools can be attributed to the increasing demand for mobile applications and the need for businesses to create mobile apps to reach customers across multiple platforms. As cross-platform frameworks provide a cost-effective and efficient way to develop mobile apps that can reach a broader audience.
That’s why when looking for the popularity of the given framework, there are several ways to determine it. You can try to find usage statistics that are sometimes published by the framework authors or as a result of surveys. Other helpful metrics are the number of GitHub stars (if the framework is open source), or the number of apps successfully built with the framework. A reliable source of information is also a yearly Developer Survey conducted by the Stack Overflow team. It provides different statistics about the tech industry, including popularity ranking and a list of the most loved and dreaded tools. The survey results from 2022 show 4 key players in the cross-platform tools market:
|Framework||Used by % of participants||Loved by % of users||Loved by # of users|
Which key points define these cross-platform frameworks’ popularity? Let’s dive into details and discover their specific features and optimal use cases.
Cross-platform Frameworks Overview
Flutter is a UI toolkit developed by Google. It’s the youngest among the frameworks considered in this article. Even though it was released in 2018, its popularity has grown rapidly over the last 4 years, making it the most popular cross-platform app development framework.
Flutter has a totally different approach to building the UI. Instead of translating the framework’s UI components into native UI components (like React Native or Xamarin) or embedding a web app into a native app with access to native APIs (like Ionic), Flutter uses its own graphics engine to render the UI. The whole layout is drawn pixel-by-pixel on a canvas. Since it doesn’t depend on native components, achieving consistent UI across all platforms is easy. Unless you change it explicitly, the app will look the same on Android and iOS. It also allows achieving the same layout across different operating system versions. You can get a modern-looking UI even on some older versions and devices.
UI consistency isn’t actually limited to mobile platforms only. The latest version of Flutter allows using the shared codebase to create apps for Android, and iOS, desktop apps for Windows, Linux, and MacOS, and web apps, like single page applications or PWAs. Google still invests a lot into extending the framework to new platforms – there’s upcoming support for RISC-V devices, meaning that Flutter apps will soon be able to run on IoT devices.
Thanks to the UI consistency, there’s no need to spend extra time optimising and customising each platform – the app will work correctly everywhere. This flexibility comes at the price of proper support for native UI components – if your app relies on those heavily, Flutter will probably not be the best choice. It’s still achievable but requires some extra effort.
Flutter seems like a perfect candidate for building an MVP. It has the fastest time-to-market among any other cross-platform frameworks. It’s achieved thanks to many prebuilt UI components called “widgets”. They are available out-of-the-box, so you don’t have to waste time finding and selecting additional UI libraries or building everything from scratch. Building a first prototype is actually just composing the layout from highly useful and customizable bricks. It can be even faster with a low-code tool called FlutterFlow.
It’s worth noting that maintaining a Flutter app becomes better and better. If you don’t depend on a very old Flutter version, upgrading your project to the most recent one may happen fully automatically thanks to the Flutter and Dart toolset that comes with the framework.
Best use cases for the Flutter app
The above features make Flutter a good choice for most cases. It’ll give additional value when it comes to prototyping and building MVPs, extending support to platforms other than mobile, or focusing on consistent UI across platforms. It won’t be the best choice for delivering a native UI experience that is platform-specific.
Discover the details about Flutter development if you are looking for a framework that will notably reduce development time and costs, improve app performance, streamline app development process with a single codebase, and have an engaging and visually appealing user interface.
React Native is a UI framework built by Facebook and released in 2015. It allows using React.JS to build mobile apps for Android and iOS. It can also be used to develop MacOS, Windows, and web apps. However, it isn’t as straightforward as Flutter and requires additional tools.
When working on the layout, you build it using a React-like syntax. They are translated into respective native controls. That makes React Native famous for providing a “native feel” to the end users. It lets them interact with well-known interfaces of their operating system. It might be handy if you are building hybrid mobile apps, don’t want to invest a lot of time in custom UI/UX design, and are just fine with the native experience. You can always be sure that if Google or Apple add some updates to the UI components, your app will also get those updates immediately, without any extra work. However, there’s a risk that such an update will break the UI. This happens extremely rarely but it still should be considered. Also, if you want your app to look exactly the same on both platforms, it will require additional effort.
It is worth mentioning that maintenance of a React Native app may sometimes be painful. It’s known and well-documented that updating a project to a newer framework version is tricky. It isn’t anything that blocks the whole development process or becomes a super hard issue. There’s also a plan to mitigate this issue by introducing a new rendering system called Fabric. However, at the moment, you need to consider that the update might be more expensive and require more effort.
New app store updates always take time to become available for download. Even if the update is available, a user must download it. React Native has a potential solution – an interesting “Code Push” feature. It allows updating the app’s code and behaviour without publishing a new update to the Play Store and App Store. It might become convenient to publish a quick hotfix or to toggle a new feature quickly. It comes with some limitations but still sounds like a good tool to solve time-to-market and adoption of the mobile app updates.
Best use cases
React Native development framework seems like the best candidate for developing a platform-specific UI. It can be extremely useful for product teams that don’t aim to polish the user experience at first – it will be present as “just enough” by using native components. It will also be great for web-based teams. However, it won’t be that useful for prototyping and for supporting platforms other than mobile with a single codebase.
Our third considered framework is Ionic. It was created by 3 developers from Drifty Co. in 2013. It’s the only considered framework that isn’t backed up by one of the huge tech companies. Nevertheless, it is still a reliable tool to use and loved by a wide community. Ionic has built-in support for mobile app development. It can be also used as a framework for PWAs or desktop apps but requires additional tooling.
Ionic uses the most classical approach to cross-platform development – an app developed with Ionic is, in fact, a web application that runs inside a web view of a native app. The framework provides its own set of UI components that give an experience close to the one native apps do. It focuses on creating a consistent layout across platforms. Like in Flutter, it makes Ionic a rather bad candidate for developing a platform-specific UI since it requires more effort. Furthermore, layout may differ between operating system versions because it depends on support for different web browser features (since it’s running inside a web view).
Performance & security
Running a web app inside a native app means slightly worse performance than other cross-platform mobile development frameworks. According to the Ionic team, the performance gets better and better with each release and might not be noticed by a regular user, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
Mixing web and mobile apps also means more work is required to ensure proper security. Such apps might be vulnerable to both web app and mobile app threats. This potentially requires more effort to introduce solid protection from cyberattacks.
In terms of native app development and speed, Ionic is lacking a “hot reload” feature. When making even a small change in the code, you need to restart the whole app instead of its piece that has been changed. That makes Ionic have a decreased productivity compared to the others since all mentioned cross-platform mobile app development frameworks have this feature.
Best use cases
Ionic will be most useful in similar cases to Flutter: building consistent UI across various platforms and prototyping. It can be picked for teams or companies with a strong knowledge of web technologies. In other cases, Flutter will be a better choice. Ionic will also be a great pick for developing a PWA thanks to strong web support.
Last but not least the cross-platform framework of Xamarin. It was released for the first time in 2011 by a small startup company, but it wasn’t very popular until 2016, when Microsoft acquired it.
Xamarin uses a similar way to build the UI as React Native – the framework’s code is translated into respective native components. Similar to React Native, it focuses on delivering the “native feel” to the customer. However, if you want to do something more customized, it will be the most expensive compared to others.
Microsoft’s cross-platform mobile development framework provides 2 approaches to developing the app. Xamarin.Native allows using a shared business logic code across platforms, but the UI layer differs for each platform. It leads to less amount of shared code for cross-platform applications, but at the same time, provides better performance and handling of some platform-specific features. On the other side, there’s Xamarin.Forms. The forms approach focuses on maximising the amount of code shared between platforms. The latter one is the closest to the cross-platform concept, as Xamarin.Native is quite similar to the experience of developing a native app.
No matter which approaches you to pick, the whole Xamarin code will be written in C# (for logic) and XAML (for UI). This framework is based on the .NET platform and is strongly integrated with the Microsoft tech stack. Probably those things make it the no. 1 choice for building mobile enterprise apps. .NET solutions are top-rated in enterprises, so Xamarin will be a natural choice, allowing to preserve a similar tech stack for the company’s software. What is more, it has the longest presence in the market out of the top cross-platform mobile app development frameworks, and Microsoft backs it, so it had a long time and proper resources to become very stable and reliable.
When speaking about developing an app with Xamarin, it’s worth mentioning that it might be quite expensive. It requires licensing for Visual Studio, the only IDE supporting writing Xamarin apps. The popularity of Xamarin is relatively small, so the costs of hiring a developer might also be higher.
Best use cases
As mentioned above, Xamarin is a perfect pick for the enterprise. It will work extremely well in a company that already uses other .NET solutions. It might also require a bigger budget so it won’t be a good choice for smaller businesses. As for React Native, Xamarin will be very useful for building platform-specific layouts and native experiences, but it won’t be effective for consistent, platform-independent UI.
Which cross-platform framework should you choose for your mobile and web development?
Like in most cases in software development, there’s no simple answer; the proper one is “It depends”. Each framework has its own features, making it more or less suitable for a given use case.
I’d suggest trying out the Flutter framework if you need a single recommendation. It’s the most flexible of the presented tools and should be sufficient in most use cases. Even though it’s quite young, it’s being developed at high speed (as can be noticed in the popularity ranking). It seems very important for Google – the company puts much more effort into it than other companies put in their competitive solutions. It provides a great developer experience that leads to creating beautiful, user-friendly UIs. It shouldn’t be treated as a silver bullet for mobile app development but can work nicely for your next product.