Businesses have realized that mobile touchpoints are increasingly more effective in reaching and engaging customers than any other channel. Those considering to launch their own mobile app will inevitably have to deal with the decision whether to develop it either as a cross-platform app or a native app.
As of 2022, there are approximately 1.85 million apps available in the iOS App Store and 2.56 million in the Google Play Store. It would be fair to say that a significant portion of these mobile applications are available in both iOS and Android. A tiny share of these apps are even available on less popular smartphone operating systems such as KaiOS (based on Linux) and HarmonyOS (Huawei).
In the early days of the smartphone era, developers were constrained to create applications specific or native to specific devices, operating systems, and whatever platforms they had to be built on. As the market and ecosystem for mobile apps grew, new approaches came out including how to make the same app for different platforms. This is how cross-platform development emerged.
In this guide, we discuss the differences between cross-platform app development versus native app development. We look at the pros and cons of each approach to help you determine which one to choose as you build your next mobile app.
Cross-platform app development
Cross-platform development is the process of building an application, typically a mobile app, that can be deployed across several platforms based on a single source code.
Organizations, enterprises, and startups typically want to make their mobile apps available in both Android and iOS, the two mobile operating systems with a near 100% global market share. The work on cross-platform apps entails creating the same codebase wherein the resulting application is intended to function on both Android and iOS. This is different from native app development wherein different teams work on a version of an app for every different platform in parallel development processes.
Think of cross-platform development as the approach with the "Write Once, Run Everywhere" principle because the process requires only a single reusable codebase but is built to run on multiple mobile platforms and operating systems. The key enabler here is the use of cross-platform mobile app development frameworks such as React Native and Flutter.
Advantages of cross-platform app development
Opting for cross-platform development as opposed to native app development has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s not about which development approach is better, but rather which one fits your priorities and circumstances. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of going for cross-platform development.
Code reusability between iOS and Android apps
Having the ability to create one codebase between iOS and Android apps is one of the leading benefits of cross-platform development for most developers. In native applications, code for different platforms must be written separately, which is typically done by two separate developers or teams. In custom mobile app development, the entire codebase is kept in one place, which helps save time and effort because the development team can work on both platforms at the same time.
For instance, upon coding an app for iOS devices, developers can compile it for Android (and vice versa) with relative ease and within a short amount of time. The amount of code that can be shared between platforms depends on the native modules integrated to the app.
Faster development process and time-to-market
Cross-platform app development entails only a single development process to produce an app that operates on various platforms. Because of code reusability between platforms, businesses eliminate the need to implement separate Android and iOS projects. Operationally, development is substantially faster because the product, design, and engineering teams are working only on one project.
Value for money and reduced development cost
As a result of needing only one development team instead of at least two, building cross-platform apps could be cheaper by up to 30% than developing iOS and Android apps independently. Further, for those looking to use tools that can build both web apps and mobile apps (such as React Native), developers can use a sizable chunk of code and other assets across web and mobile. This can shorten the development process, hence reduce development cost.
UI/UX consistency across platforms
How UI and navigation are designed vary among different operating systems and platforms, which is why separate and specialized teams do the work in native app development. Cross-platform development frameworks handle these differences by default. Cross-platform apps exhibit a more consistent look and feel for users across multiple platforms.With React Native you can build a mobile app that can run across multiple device platforms. Discover the Shine case study.
This is particularly helpful for apps wherein its users tend to use them on multiple devices. It also enables organizations to display a consistent brand identity in a wide range of platforms with not much additional effort. For example, when the development team modifies the visual style of an app, that change is immediately visible on both platforms.
Prospects for talent and the future
Cross-platform frameworks are increasingly growing in popularity, particularly React Native and Flutter. More and more developers are recognizing the opportunities of learning these frameworks. By learning just one framework, they can work on apps that deploy both on iOS and Android.
Further, more cross-platform frameworks are also being developed given the rising interest among startups and enterprises. The prospects for cross-platform ecosystems are expected to be more promising and dynamic.
Broad market reach when testing and prototyping
Because deploying an app on both Android and iOS with cross-platform development is cheaper and faster, businesses can reach more customers or users more efficiently. This makes cross-platform a better fit for those still testing an idea, hypothesis, or prototype that needs to be deployed in multiple platforms.
- Lower speed and performance: Generally speaking, developers have long recognized that native apps perform slightly better and faster than cross-platform apps when it comes to simpler applications. Because cross-platform apps require an additional abstraction layer and rendering process, these are typically slower than those built as native apps. Further, when it comes to CPU and GPU-intensive apps, there appears to be some evidence of a wider performance gap.
- Adapting the code to each platform can constrain functionality: Cross-platform apps must adapt their design and functionality across specific platforms, operating systems, and devices. As a result, it requires quite a bit of effort from developers who must handle individual differences for each type of device and platform. This can be particularly demanding for complex features. As a result, this difficulty during implementation may affect functionality.
- Wait time for updates and new features: When Google or Apple releases an update or introduces new features for their respective operating systems, cross-platform apps take some time or additional effort to support the most recent releases. For instance, new SDKs for native apps are updated considerably more quickly than cross-platform frameworks.
Native app development
Native app development is the process of building an application exclusive to a particular platform. Those that want to deploy their apps across multiple platforms can still do so natively, but deployment in each requires separate — oftentimes parallel — development processes.
If companies wish to have their apps available on both iOS and Android, then two different teams simultaneously work on the version of the app for each operating system. In some cases, they contract a team to work on the Android native app first and learn and iterate from it. Then they subsequently move to another team to develop the iOS native app.
Advantages of native app development
Here are the advantages of going for native app development. Native mobile apps surpass cross-platform apps when it comes to speed and performance, stability in maintenance and updates, among others.
Application speed and performance
Native apps perform better and faster than cross-platform and other types of non-native apps since these are developed with specific platform requirements in mind. Native apps are compiled exclusively for a specific set of devices and run on a specific architecture.
They tend to run faster because they have access to exclusive APIs and components that are optimized for multiple screen sizes and system versions. Furthermore, native apps perform better than cross-platform apps because of the direct contact between the code and underlying resources. Native apps can also be smaller in size, therefore, faster download from the application store.
Stability in maintenance and updates
Because Android and iOS come from Google and Apple, respectively, there’s a high degree of trust and confidence that these tech giants will continue to support and enhance their mobile operating systems. For example, Google and Apple provide developers with Software Development Kits (SDKs), interface elements, and other development tools.
Access to SDKs speeds up the development process and gives developers direct access to the most updated features. Practically, this means that apps natively built on Android and iOS benefit from stability when it comes to maintenance and updates. New features can be implemented immediately upon release.
On the other hand, since cross-platform frameworks are created by third-party companies, organizations, and even just by developer communities, there’s some risk that upgrade or further development of these frameworks could be inconsistent, slowed down, or discontinued.
Customization on features and UI/UX
Native apps are easier and faster to configure or customize because developers don’t have to worry about dependencies between the versions of the app from different operating systems. Because designing user interfaces for iOS and Android apps differ significantly, it’s usually easier for developers to adhere to the standards of the platform they’re familiar with, which then enables them to implement more effectively and creatively.
The native app for iOS and Android providing the employees with crucial information about their workspace. The app has a fully interactive office map at its core. Employees can use it to quickly find their own location and reach the right people and places. Read the case study on building a modern work environment for enterprise.
Further, native apps generally have superior flexibility and UI capabilities because they feature pre-set libraries and interface components that developers can customize. Because of this, native app developers can build a more responsive application, among many other UI/UX configurations.
Maximizing the use of hardware functionalities
Native apps do a better job of taking full advantage of a mobile device’s hardware functionalities such as its camera and GPS, among others. For example, apps with an augmented reality feature are best done as a native app than through cross-platform development. This is also partly due to the exclusive APIs offered by iOS and Android to their respective developer communities.
Native application development inherently provides more tailored and robust security features than apps built with cross-platform frameworks. It’s usually easier for native app developers to implement file encryption, intelligent fraud detection, and other security features through each platform’s respective libraries and resources.
Further, updating security measures in native apps take less time compared to cross-platform apps as it’s more difficult to predict when cross-platform frameworks will be updated following patches and other platform-specific releases.
Highly specialized talent who have mastered their respective platforms
While it’s possible to hire or contract talent that can develop for both platforms, the talent pool is certainly limited. However, with native development, businesses can benefit from a rich pool of talent with deep expertise and experience in their respective platforms and development frameworks.
- More costly and time-consuming: As you can imagine, deploying two teams to build the same app for both iOS and Android requires more financial resources. Further, while the teams work in parallel, the coordination between them to align the UI/UX generally lengthens the development cycles.
- No code reusability: The iOS and Android apps of Discord, the distributed messaging platform, share 98% of the same code as it was built with a cross-platform approach. By building separate native apps, your engineering teams will have to do the coding independently without the ability to reuse code from one OS into the other. Compared with cross-platform apps with reusable codebases, developing separate native apps naturally requires more time, effort, and expense.
- Double the work on support and maintenance: Another significant disadvantage of native apps is that your maintenance costs will be higher. Many businesses overlook the fact that app costs do not end after any application is released. In fact, in many cases, the bulk of the work is performed during the support and maintenance phase. Annual maintenance expenditures might reach up to 20–50% of the app's development budget on average.
Further, this extra work can also significantly slow bug fixes. When the development team discovers an essential and urgent update, updating several native apps will take more time.
Meanwhile, users may have to deal with a suboptimal app, whether in its UI/UX, functionalities, or security. Because of their shared codebase, cross-platform apps are less likely to encounter this issue. Changes made to it are instantaneously propagated to all operating systems with minimal modifications.
Which one to choose for your next project?
Choosing one development approach over the other is not a straightforward decision. Each project has different priorities and a unique set of circumstances. Based on a wide range of considerations, here’s a recap of key considerations to help you guide your decision.
Cross-platform app development has an edge when it comes to:
- Faster time-to-market
- Limiting or saving on development costs
- Less work and expenses when maintaining an app
- Code reusability between iOS and Android
- Lighter apps that aren’t CPU and GPU-intensive such as those that have heavy animation or complex logic
- Consistency in the interface and navigation across different platforms (whenever the UI is similar for both platforms)
- Testing an idea, hypothesis, or prototype across multiple platforms
Native app development has an edge when it comes to:
- Application performance and speed
- Application security
- Customizability and configuration of features and UI/UX
- Apps with state-of-the-art, platform-specific UI/UX
- Faster and easier deployment of updates and new features
- Building a more responsive application
- Taking advantage of a mobile phone’s hardware such as its camera
- Resource-intensive apps such as mobile games and those with heavy animations
- Apps that are part of a larger suite of applications (which may share some code)
The development approach right for you
Certain apps will be best delivered through native development. However, cross-platform development is worth considering especially for those pressed for time and resources. It’s also an ideal approach for businesses of any size looking to test or prototype their ideas.
Further, some of the most well-known tech firms use cross-platform frameworks for their mobile applications. For example, Meta leverages React Native in their own apps, including the Facebook app itself, Facebook Ads, and Instagram. Bloomberg, Skype, AirBnb, Walmart, Pinterest and many others have deployed cross-platform development in their mobile apps.