Cross Platform

The world has gone mobile. It has become a “must have” element for any organization, regardless of its size. Undoubtedly, some organizations can concentrate on only one mobile OS (operating system) and avoid all the other ones, yet it is important for many businesses to focus on a myriad of mobile devices with various operating systems. Gone are those days when you were satisfied with only having a mobile app. Today, it is important that the app must support Android gadgets, iPads, Windows Phone, Amazon Kindle, Tabs, BlackBerry, etc.

One of the most challenging situations for app developers is, whether to develop a native mobile app or go for cross-platform. Of course, as a business, you require dealing with different types of customers who possess different types of devices. Therefore, you'd need to have a mobile app that could work seamlessly on almost all the platforms (i.e. Android, iOS, Windows, etc.)

What are Cross-Platform Apps?

    In ideal scenario, cross-platform apps work on multiple operating systems with a single code base. There are 2 types of cross-platform apps:
  • Native Cross-Platform Apps
  • Hybrid ‘HTML5’ Cross-Platform Apps

Native Cross-Platform Apps

Every major mobile operating system has its own SDK (Software Development Kit) to create mobile apps. These SDKs also have preferred programming languages which are supported by the OS vendor. For example, for iOS, Objective-C and Swift are the preferred programming languages supported by Apple, whereas for Android, Java is the preferred language supported by Google.

However, it is possible to use APIs (Application Programming Interface) provided by the native SDK, in other programming languages which are not supported by the OS vendor. This is how “cross-platform” native apps are created. Generally, a third party vendor chooses a programming language and creates a unified API on top of the native SDKs provided by the various OS vendors. Using this unified API, it is possible to support multiple operating systems with a single code base. The third-party vendor generally provides an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) which handles the process of creating the native application bundle for iOS and Android from the single cross-platform codebase.

Since, the final app produced still uses the native APIs, the cross-platform native apps can achieve near native performance without any visible lag to the user.

The greatest strength of native apps is their sheer power. Native apps easily make use of the device’s software and built-in hardware features. Another important asset is that they can be used offline even when a user in not connected to their network.

Current State of Implementation

Though creating cross-platform native applications is possible today, the current state of implementation is far from complete. Most of the mobile apps are heavy on the GUI (Graphical User Interface) implementation side. Almost all the critical business application logic resides on the server which is accessed by the mobile via web services.

Since the User Interface (UI) and User Experience Design (UXD) of iOS and Android are quite different from each other, it’s not an easy task to create a uniform GUI wrapper on top of it. Though Xamarin and others have put in significant work on this front, it is far from perfect. It works well if you design your application to live within the framework’s limitation, however, if you need anything that doesn’t fit with the framework’s vision, it requires a lot of work to implement and requires writing platform specific code. To give you an example, in Xamarin Forms, it takes a lot more work if your designer chooses to give custom colored borders to text fields. As this is not obvious to the designer, once you have settled in on the design, the programming team needs to put in a lot of efforts to pull off this seemingly simple design. One popular approach taken in native cross-platform development involves writing business logic and web service calls using cross-platform libraries while GUI related code is written with platform specific libraries. Depending on the application, this can allow 30% to 60% code reuse.

Hybrid ‘HTML5’ cross-platform Apps

Mobile apps are essentially GUI applications. Most mobile apps depend on backend web services for large parts of their business logic. Roughly speaking, in mobile apps, especially in the business process automation domain, almost 60% of the code deals with creating and managing the GUI.

iOS, Android and Windows Phone, all have a very advanced browser component in their SDKs. By leveraging this WebView component, programmers are able to use standard HTML5 web technologies to design and program parts of their application. So in the end, the application is composed of at least a native frame and HTML/JavaScript executed in a WebView – which is why they are called “hybrid”. Application features which need sensor input like geolocation, camera or lower level functions like accessing the file system usually use some JavaScript-to-native bridge provided by the hybrid application framework.

    Pros of cross-platform mobile app development
  • With careful planning around 50%-80% code reuse can be realized across-platforms. This results in faster development and reduced costs.
  • Cross-platform development provides more benefits during the maintenance period. If a bug is found in a common codebase it needs to be fixed only once.
  • Unit tests are required to be written only once for the common code, hence the saved budget can be used to write more thorough unit tests.
  • It is possible to use existing programming talent rather than learning platform specific development language.
  • Ideal for B2B apps and business process automation apps, where time to deployment and efficient utilization of resources is more important than sleek look and feel.

Advantages of Developing Cross Platform Mobile Apps

The biggest benefit of cross platform development is that it targets multiple platforms and devices by writing minimal source code . The advantages that comes with this more devices and lesser code strategy is -

1. Reduced Maintenance & Development Cost

These applications can originate from single codebase having single development skillset. It can target all platforms and does not require staff for individual ones. Having single codebase also reduces maintenance costs as it no longer requires to keep bug tracking for large number of codebase and relative staff for each platform.

Building a cross-platform mobile app turns out to be economical for organizations as it works on multiple platforms and leverages a single codebase. Companies can get an app without investing heavily in the resources, tools, and technologies for a particular ecosystem. Also, the same development team can be leveraged to work on various platforms, instead of having a dedicated team for each one like we have in the current native scene.

2. Lowers Technical Barriers

App Development with JavaScript, Flex, and HTML5 is easier than compared to Java and Objective. Due to this ease of development and language familiarity, the technical barrier is lowered in cross platform development boosting adoption of it.  It now allows more developers and teams to build an application that was previously not been easily able to. If developing native apps for different platforms then the development team requires learning Java for Android applications, Objective C for iOS applications, Silverlight for Windows Phone applications, etc. It requires a developer to be adept in all technologies which is next to impossible. Cross development is a better technique to follow here as one needs to be proficient in one skill set or language. Now here more focus is laid on application being developed rather than on the skill set.

Most of the framework offers a variety of modules and extension that seamlessly integrate with other tools to improve the app’s functionality and look. It becomes easier and faster for the developers to deploy and maintain codes for the apps to run across all platforms. Also, the latest update to the app gets easily synced across the devices and platforms.

3. Technical Strength

Certain technologies make some tasks easier like data visualization and programmatic drawing is easy using Action Script and Flex. While developing equivalent experience in native code is more time consuming and even complex.

The aim of developing any mobile application is to drive more customers and wherein possible have high quality engagement with target market. So when majority are using same single platform the choice becomes easy but when you are targeting huge audience having multiple platforms then cross development is an ideal choice.

Moreover it is easier to maintain and deploy changes while developing single application for multi devices . Updates even easily get synchronized across all platforms.

4. Uniform Look and Feel

With Cross platform development the same design and overall feel can be maintained across all platforms as there single codebase running but while designing separately for platforms its pretty hard to synchronize between development teams of different expertise levels.

One of the most important considerations for any app or software is its User Experience (UX). The single codebase used for developing a cross-platform app helps in maintaining the overall look and feel and consistency of the app on all platforms.

5. Wider Reach and Effective Marketing

When developing apps for multiple platforms you are benefited with the wider audience and exposure that your application can reach. It boosts the market potential of mobile app as more and more people of different platforms are now targeted. App running on iOS, Android and Windows Phones provides an extra added advantages if exposure is taken into account. Marketing do becomes easier as the apps can now be promoted on various media’s and platforms and not just catering a specific set of masses. Cross-platform app development framework leverages the unified codebase that enables businesses to fast track the mobile application development and timely delivery of the app for its customers.

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