Cross-platform applications – PhoneGap/Cordova, Xamarin, PWAs and now Flutter

At Built to Roam we build applications that target a wide array of different platforms, using a wide variety of technologies depending on the project requirements. One of the most challenging things faced by organisation looking to build any form of software is often not what should I build, it’s often what technology should I use to build it. Unfortunately this is also where the most cycles are wasted and the poorest decisions are made.

Nirvana would be building the software once, and for it to be available on every platform and device type, able to be instantly updatable and have a rich and engaging user interface (and I’m sure there’s more things that needed to be bolted onto this list of “ideals”). However, the reality is that there are different device types and sizes; there are different technologies with differing capabilities; and different developer and deployment workflows. Rather than being able to make an absolute decision on the best strategy, companies are limited by their own field of influence. Too often this includes Gartner reports, media hype and both internal and contractors with whom the decision makers have a relationship with.

In addition to the number of options that are available, the optimum strategy also evolves over time. For example, five years ago in Australia it made sense for organisations to start their investment in mobile apps with a fairly basic iPhone application. Today the market expectation is that a mobile strategy encompasses at least Android and iOS, phone and tablet, and with a comprehensive set of features. In fact some applications, don’t even have a web presence, finding that their mobile apps were sufficient for their business model.

So the question is really whether it is possible to define the optimum strategy for a business and is it possible to future proof it?

To investigate this a bit further, let’s take a look at the progression of native application development. What’s quite interesting is that businesses have woken up to the fact that maintaining multiple applications written in the preferred technology for each platform is not sustainable. This has led to the emergency of a host of cross platform tools that generate native applications. There are tools such as Xamarin/Xamarin Forms which compile C# so that it can be run on the target platform; There has also been an explosion in Javascript based solutions, such as React Native where it generates the native components for each platform based on HTML mark-up (+CSS, JavaScript etc); More recently again there is Flutter, which aims to provide a user experience that has been drawn from the ground up to be platform agnostic. How do you make a decision between these technologies?

More importantly is – are you making the decision about the right thing? It would seem that making a decision about which native application toolset to use would be right but actually the web and some of the hybrid solutions solve so many challenges that native application developers face, it would be foolish to ignore them. Take for example the recent hype around Progressive Web Applications. There are some who believe this is just another round of hype about the newest buzzword to arrive on the scene but in actual fact whilst the name is new, the concept is not. Back even in the days of Windows Vista, there were desktop gadgets that essentially allowed parts of the web to run in a container in an offline capacity. PWAs are just the latest name to be given to this concept.

Where PWAs are set to make a difference is that they are being widely backed (eg Google: and Microsoft: and they also arrive at a point in time where devices have browsers and rendering engines that are capable of delivering a high-performance web experience whether in-browser, or in a hosted web application.

Do you think the market is ready for PWAs? or are native applications going to rule for the foreseeable future?

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