The Landscape of Cross-Platform App Development

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I don’t track this stuff very well, but I get it. If you want a native app for Android and iOS, it sure would be nice to only have to write it once rather than two very different languages. Roughly double your reach without doubling the work. More and more of these things are reaching into desktop as well, meaning three targets for one.

Stuff like PhoneGap comes to mind. They say, “Reuse existing web development skills to quickly make hybrid applications built with HTML, CSS and JavaScript.” That’s obviously compelling for web developers who would have to learn minimal new things. My brain leans more toward, “Well if I’m going to write this thing in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, why don’t I leave it at that?” Progressive Web Apps are doing great things. Still, I’m curious what the flagship PhoneGap apps are. Do I use any great ones and not even know it?

If you’re going to layer on a framework, but still stay in JavaScript-land, I’d think the biggest player is React Native. I hear it’s almost always used with Expo these days, which apparently has a thing to help React Native work on the web. Plus, there is literally React Native for Web.

In React-land, there is another new player: Ionic React. It targets all three platforms (iOS, Android, and Desktop) right out of the gate. Ionic isn’t new though — it’s long been a framework that does this in JavaScript (alternatively in Angular) and is apparently coming soon to Vue. Compelling. Nader Dabit has a first-look blog post that is pretty well done.

This all starts to get confusing to me as apparently Ionic ultimately uses Cordova under the hood… just like PhoneGap does? Or something? But now Ionic is moving to their own thing? I guess it makes sense that there are some low-level interpreter things that translate web primitives to native primitives and that people build developer tooling on top of that.

Google’s got a stake in this game with Flutter. Flutter is about hitting all three targets and helping you build the UI. Material design, animation and performance are all first-class citizens. It’s all in Dart though. Dart can compile to JavaScript (so it can be used for web stuff) but it also compiles to machine code. I imagine Flutter apps are compiled that way when they become native apps for bonus performance. I don’t have a good sense of how popular Dart is, but I’d assume web developers really won’t care what they’re writing in if great performance on all three targets is the outcome.

Ever further outside my wheelhouse is Xamarin, which is Microsoft’s take on unifying development on multiple platforms. The languages involved here are .NET and C#. It has all the same promises as everything else: build with this and it works everywhere! This is for developer convenience! It’s fast and you will make amazing things with it!

I’m always of two minds with all this stuff. Some part of me is envious of really nice native apps. Most of my favorite apps on my phone feel very native, although I’m not sure I could spot which framework created them, if any. For example, I have a Dribbble app on my phone and I quite like it. It’s simple and nice. I open it up and I’m logged in, which is usually not the case when I open a web app. It feels fast and has all the in-page animation stuff you expect from a native app. I totally wish we had an app like that for CodePen. Maybe if we were starting over today we’d write it in some cross-platform framework that targets all three platforms and maybe gives us some cool competitive advantage. Another part of me is like, meh, I’m a web guy on purpose. I think the native open web is the place to be and has the most longevity. A codebase that serves that well will be the least regrettable over time.