Understanding the Industry: What Is Cross-Platform Development?
February 12, 2020 / Bryan Reynolds
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Here at Baytech Consulting, we love to empower our clients by helping them better understand the software development industry. We know you don’t have the time or resources to become experts in this industry. We get it: you’re focused on making your business succeed, and that involves a lot of things that aren’t software development.
We’re a software development company that’s here to take that load off you so you can focus on what makes your business great. But as we work with you to meet your software needs, it’s helpful if you know some of the basic lingo so that we can be sure we’re somewhat speaking the same language. That’s why we’ve started this Understanding the Industry series.
In our last post, we answered the question, “What is a software outsourcing company?” We covered why businesses would want to partner with an outside software development company and how that process works if you choose to work with Baytech.
This week, we’re jumping to another topic: cross platform development. What is it, and how does it compare to native development? At Baytech, we’ve done it all. We’ll answer these questions and more, all in an effort to educate and empower our readers.
What Is Cross-Platform Development?
Cross-platform development is the process of developing software applications that function on multiple operating systems, or platforms, using the same basic code. It’s usually the fastest and most cost-effective way to develop software, but that time and cost savings is coupled with limitations, sometimes significant ones.
Cross-platform development stands in contrast to native development, where applications are built to function in one specific operating system (or you could say on one specific platform).
With native development, if you want a version of your app on PC and on iPadOS, you’d have to build the app twice, more or less from scratch. Little if any code will be reusable. With cross-platform development, all (or at least the vast majority) of your code works on multiple platforms. We’ll come back to native development a little later.
Cross-platform development has a lot of potential. If you need to reach the largest audience possible as quickly as possible, then cross-platform makes a lot of sense. You only need to build your app once, and you’re not limited to reaching only one platform’s users.
Types of Cross-Platform Development
The most common types of cross-platform development are based on device category. Cross-platform mobile apps will support both Android and iOS. Cross-platform computer applications will support Windows and macOS (and perhaps some versions of Linux).
(Nerdy aside: There are other complications here, such as Apple’s Catalyst, which allows developers to build a native Mac app from their extant iPad app. And there are some simple HTML-based cross-platform apps that are more or less the same on mobile and PC/Mac. But let’s not muddy the waters. For the purposes of this post, we’ve stirred them up enough already.)
The Other Option: Native Development
We mentioned above that the alternative to cross-platform development is native development. With native development, software developers build applications in coding languages that are unique—or native—to a particular operating system. So if you want to build a native iOS app, you might use Apple’s Swift programming language, which the company touts as powerful and easy to learn.
It may well be powerful, intuitive and easy to learn, but there’s one thing it doesn’t do: make Android apps. (Or Windows or Linux apps, for that matter.)
This means that if you choose native development, you’re either locked into a single operating system (like iOS or Android or Windows), or you’re forced to build unique versions of your application for each operating system. The first option cuts your potential customer base in half, and the second option takes additional time, knowledge, and money.
Pros and Cons
At this point, you have a decent working knowledge of what cross-platform development and native development are, which is important as you begin working with a software development company to build your applications. But which type of development is right for you?
They both have pros and cons, some of which we’ve already mentioned or alluded to. Before you draw a conclusion on which type of software development is right for you, let’s take a deeper look at the pros and cons of each type.
Pros of Cross-Platform Development
The pros of cross-platform development are many and significant. We’ll highlight just a few.
Save Time and Money: First, you’re likely to save both money and time when you choose cross-platform development. The draw of cross-platform is that you’ll only need code written for your app one time, and it will work on all your target operating systems. You won’t spend extra time and money rebuilding your app’s functionalities for each operating system.
Reach a Wider Audience Faster: Similarly, you’ll reach a wider audience faster with cross-platform development. Many companies don’t have the resources to do native development for every OS. That’s one of the reasons that some apps are iOS only or Android only. Companies who make that choice cut their potential customer base in half. With cross-platform development, you can reach a wider audience with a single app development process.
Find Expertise Faster: Most cross-platform apps are built based on web-based coding languages, like HTML and CSS. If that doesn’t mean much to you, that’s OK. The point here is that there are tons of web developers out there. You’re likely to have an easier time finding expertise in these web-based frameworks than you will with complex native code languages.
Easy Deployment and Updates: Since you’re dealing with just one codebase, deploying your app is easier. So is updating it, because you only have to update one app. Also, since it’s based on web-style code, your app is less likely to be “broken” by an OS update. Apple can change the way its OS interacts with elements of certain coding languages and can even choose to deprecate features you rely on. But you’re far less likely to run into these nightmare scenarios when choosing cross-platform development.
Cons of Cross-Platform Development
Of course, it’s not all roses and sunshine with cross-platform development. There are some cons here, too.
Universal Apps Mean Shallow Integration: Here’s a statement that will surprise no one: Android and iOS are really, really different. So are Windows and macOS. So it stands to reason that if you create just one codebase (like you’ll do if you choose cross platform), it’s not going to be all that integrated into each OS.
What does that mean for you? Generally speaking, you probably won’t have access to some of the cooler OS-specific functions when you choose cross platform. Or, to get those functions, you may need a bit of extra work at the end of the process, where your software development company explicitly adds certain features to certain builds. But if you go down this road, you start losing the advantages of building cross platform in the first place.
To recap, with shallow integration, your app may look and feel a little generic or basic, and it may not have access to some OS features. Elegant coding solutions to solve this are possible, but they start muddying the waters and push you toward more of a hybrid development style.
Lower Performance: Since your app isn’t built to take full advantage of the OS that it’s running in, you won’t get as strong of performance as you would with native development. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem. If your application isn’t all that resource intensive to begin with, users may never notice any performance issues at all.
Still, it’s something to be aware of, especially if your software development company indicates that the functions you’re asking them to build into your application are going to be more resource intensive.
Glitches and UX Issues: With cross-platform development, you are at the mercy of how each OS interprets your code. The goal is to use code that is platform independent, but there are always going to be some glitches.
You’ve seen this elsewhere. Have you ever had trouble using a website, where, for example, an input field isn’t showing up, or some feature just refuses to load? Often the solution is to switch to another internet browser—another codebase—and then the page works properly. What’s going on here? Both browsers are interpreting the same code, but only one is doing it correctly.
The same sort of thing can happen to your application. From text fields that are stuck behind the keyboard and aren’t “clickable” to issues with home buttons/keys/gestures, you’re at a greater risk of glitches and UX issues with cross-platform development.
Of course, we don’t want you to live in fear. The best software development companies will solve these problems for you! We just want to make it clear what sorts of issues you may encounter when you choose cross-platform development.
Pros of Native Development
You could almost stop the article here and say that the pros and cons of native development are essentially the opposite of the ones listed above. But there are some differences, so we’ll add a little more context than that. Here are a few of the pros of native development.
Better Performance: When you build an app from the ground up in a native coding language, you’ll always get better performance. If you’re building a high-intensity application, one that needs to do a lot and do it well, then native development may be the better choice.
Improved UI/UX: When you develop using a native coding language, your app will be directly tied in to the operating system’s functions. You won’t have issues trying to thread the needle or accommodate every sort of button configuration or lack thereof (on mobile). Your UI will be custom built for the OS you’ve chosen so that it “just works.” This leads to a positive user experience (UX), which often drives repeat usage and return customers.
Simplified Design: At first this sounds contradictory, but bear with us. When you choose native development, you can use a development language that complements the OS (like Apple’s Swift). Since Swift already knows about all the functions and features of iOS, the process of designing your app gets a lot simpler. You can in a sense rely on the coding language to fill in the gaps, where with cross-platform you can’t do that.
So design really is simplified. But the tradeoff is that you have to do it for every OS you want to support, which isn’t so great.
Cons of Native Development
Just like with cross platform, there are cons to native development.
Cost: Developing native apps usually costs more than developing cross-platform apps. This is true in a purely monetary sense, but it’s also true in terms of labor and development cycle.
If you’re planning to develop native apps for multiple platforms, your development time nearly doubles for each one. Alternatively, your software development company may assign multiple specialists to each of your native apps, keeping time under control but greatly increasing expense.
Shrunken Customer Base: If you go the native route but can’t spring for supporting multiple operating systems, you run into another major negative for native development: a shrunken customer base. If your application is Windows-only or Mac-only, you’ve shut out a large portion of the market in the hopes of cutting costs. The mobile market is a pretty even split, so choosing one OS over the other alienates almost 50% of users.
Sometimes this is the only path forward, but saying goodbye to so many potential customers is a tough decision, certainly.
Access to Labor: The more specialized the coding language, the fewer programmers you’ll find that are capable of writing code in it. There are some coding languages where there is a shortage of talent, as well. So accessing labor can be a difficulty, and the specialists you do find may charge a hefty premium for their services.
Conclusion: Which Is Better?
So after all that, you may still be wondering which approach is better, cross platform or native development?
At Baytech Consulting, we’ve been at this for a long time. We hate to break it to you, but there’s no one right answer to this question. The decision between cross platform and native development is one that is highly dependent on your goals, budget and timeframe.
The nature of your applications must also be considered. Are you building resource-intensive, highly specialized applications, or are your applications more low-level or resource-light? Do you need deep OS integration, or would you not really use those functions anyways?
The decision between cross-platform development and native development is a complex one. We recommend partnering with a software development company like Baytech Consulting, one that can operate in either development type. We’ll sit down with you and have a detailed discussion about your end goals, and together we can reach a decision about the development type that’s right for you.