Top challenges of developing cross-platform mobile apps

10 min read
January 13, 2023

Cross-platform is becoming an increasingly popular approach to developing apps.

After all, the ability to write code once and deploy it to iOS and Android is an attractive proposition. It could easily cut the time and cost of creating your multi-platform app by half.

But behind the benefits of cross-platform development, there are flaws that most people aren’t aware of.

And it could pose a significant challenge to app developers and owners.

Here’s a rundown of the common pitfalls of developing a cross-platform app.

Mobile device fragmentation

A wide variety of mobile devices available on the market might be great for consumers.

However, it’s a nightmare for cross-platform developers, thanks to mobile device fragmentation.

That’s because different mobile devices also mean varying screen sizes, operating systems, and hardware specifications.

An app has to work for the majority of these, or else adoption rates and monetization will suffer.

Thus, it’s critical to account for fragmentation during development.

However, that requires developers to code, test, and maintain their app against dozens of configurations—dramatically increasing development time, cost, and complexity.

This problem is arguably more apparent with Android because of how varied its ecosystem is.

It consists of dozens of manufacturers, each releasing devices in varying screen sizes and resolutions.

The result? An extreme screen size fragmentation for Android, compared to the relatively uniform distribution of iOS devices.

screen size fragmentation

Source: Medium

This extreme range in screen sizes could be especially problematic for mobile games because it makes designing an adaptable UI challenging.

Moreover, 2D graphics need to be in a high enough resolution to scale properly.

Then there’s also the issue of the way different operating systems handle apps.

For example, it’s well-known that Android gives apps far more freedom on their devices, allowing them, for instance, to transfer files or access the underlying hardware. In contrast, iOS is more restrictive.

Thus, you need to include features that work well on both platforms, which can severely limit what you can do.

In the best case scenario, you will have to introduce a workaround, but that also takes time and effort.

However, even in the same OS family, there are differences between OS versions that could impact app development.

For instance, some app features might not be supported by older versions of iOS or Android.

some app features might not be supported by older versions of iOS or Android chart

Source: Android Authority

Finally, differences in hardware brought about by device fragmentation also complicate the development of high-quality apps.

For example, say you’re developing a 3D cross-platform game.

The big challenge is considering the minimum RAM and CPU requirements, which can prevent you from creating a cutting-edge game.

Android and iOS RAM statistics

Source: ded9

There are a few ways to tackle device fragmentation.

In some cases, adopting an adaptive or responsive design that automatically fits itself to the user’s device will be enough.

However, sometimes workarounds won’t do the trick.

In these cases, your best bet is to either limit the number of devices you support (which can reduce your user base) or trim down app features (which could impact engagement).

The bottom line is that mobile device fragmentation will always have to be taken into account when developing a cross-platform app.

Fewer options for UI design

When it comes to the user interface (UI), cross-platform app developers are at a disadvantage because they are severely limited in their design choices.

This is due to the fact that Android and iOS each have distinct design components, rules, and best practices.

This difference makes it difficult to design a UI that works well for both platforms. Consequently, you’ll likely need to stick to simpler layouts.

But more importantly, the difficulty of designing cross-platform apps is due to users already being accustomed to their chosen OS’s default look and feel.

Bruno Garcia, the engineering manager at developer tool Sentry, put it best when he said:

Essentially, the end user has no idea that the app wasn’t native to the OS and there needs to be no issues when it comes to UI/UX, jank, latency, or features.

In other words, a cross-platform app needs to feel like a native app. That’s a huge challenge in terms of many UI elements.

Take the primary navigation menu.

iOS vs Android primary nav differences

Source: Learn UI Design Blog

On a typical iOS app, these are listed as icons or tabs at the bottom of the screen. When users tap on an item, it gets highlighted, and then the user goes to the corresponding screen.

In contrast, the primary menu on an Android app tends to be in different places. They can be a hamburger menu, as tabs on the upper portion of the UI, or a floating menu button.

Breaking these conventions can be risky. As mentioned, long-time users will already be accustomed to these design nuances.

Thus, veering away from them can be jarring to them. This also requires them to re-learn how to use your app, increasing the cognitive load.

The bottom line is that creating a uniform UI that looks and feels great on any OS is a must for any cross-platform app. And that’s incredibly challenging to do.

Slower app performance

A cross-platform app might be faster to develop, but the trade-off is that its performance might be slower compared to a native app.

This is especially apparent with web-based cross-platform apps.

They run on an intermediary software layer, which acts as the bridge to the underlying operating system. This translates to more processing time, slowing down the app considerably.

How hybrid app development works infographic

Source: Codetiburon

Cross-platform technologies that automatically compile code for each OS, such as React Native, offer better performance than their web-based counterparts.

That’s because these tools basically create a native app out of cross-platform code.

However, even the performance of React Native apps tends to be inferior to a true native app due to development overhead.

In other words, a cross-platform app code needs to account for the nuances and intricacies of every OS you want to deploy to.

You’ll need longer, more complex code for this, which takes more time to write and test.

Take memory management, an area where Android and iOS differ significantly.

In Android, memory management is handled automatically by the Java runtime environment through a garbage collection mechanism.

This makes Android apps easier to develop but consumes far more memory.

iOS, in contrast, leaves memory management to the developers. While this means additional work, it also means developers can optimize their app’s memory handling.

The result is a more efficient app that consumes far less memory. In fact, one study revealed that iOS apps generally need 40% less RAM than their Android counterparts.

Unfortunately, these memory management tricks are off the table if you create a cross-platform app.

The same is true with platform-specific tools and libraries, which you could use to optimize the performance and speed of your app.

One example is Android’s Profile GPU Rendering Tool, which displays a histogram measuring how fast your app UI loads. It’s a useful tool that could help speed up your app’s rendering time.

GPU Rendering

Source: Toptal

Ultimately, it is possible to develop a cross-platform app that performs just as well as a native app. But you would need to put in far more thought, time, and effort to pull it off.

Catching up with OS updates

One big challenge with cross-platform tools is that they’re slower to adapt to OS updates than a true native app. That means developers can’t access the latest features and patches.

When Android and iOS release new features and critical fixes on their development SDKs, those releases don’t propagate to cross-platform tools immediately.

The cross-platform tool developers must update those tools themselves. Then, they need to release the updated version of their own app, reflecting the OS changes.

This can take weeks or even months, depending on the tool.

During that time, cross-platform developers are essentially locked out of new OS updates.

Sometimes, these can be crucial as they could fix a security vulnerability or overhaul a major flaw, thus putting cross-platform app users at risk.

For instance, a recent Android update tackled over 80 security flaws in Android versions 10 to 13.

This includes a potential hack where an attacker can run a code remotely via Bluetooth while bypassing permissions.

Native apps would get the benefit of the security update immediately. Not so with cross-platform apps.

Another challenge is if iOS releases a new feature that Android hasn’t yet.

Let’s say iOS updates its app permission protocol, but Android takes another two months before they do the same.

The iOS version can benefit from the new permission settings during that period, but the Android version can’t.

This creates an inconsistent experience. Not to mention that you need to update your cross-platform code twice, once for each OS release.

Admittedly, lagging behind OS updates isn’t a big flaw in cross-platform apps. But it could be significant enough in some situations to warrant inclusion on this list.

Making the mobile app secure

Making cross-platform apps secure is much more challenging than a native app. There are several reasons for this.

One is a lack of versatile cross-platform debugging tools that make testing and troubleshooting cross-platform apps much more difficult.

This could inevitably lead to less stable apps, especially since you need to account for both iOS and Android.

In contrast, native apps feature much more powerful debuggers. Both XCode and Android Studio have excellent debugging tools that can help optimize their respective codes.

Plus, there are also some great third-party options to choose from.

debugging tool

Source: Android

The second issue with cross-platform apps is that they use programming languages that are much more vulnerable to hacks, such as HTML and JavaScript.

The code could also be more visible, thus allowing attackers to study and exploit it.

Compare this to native apps, which are compiled into assembly language. Because of this, the underlying code is invisible to outsiders and harder to reverse engineer.

Additional strategies like code obfuscation make code even harder to understand.

Java Obfuscator

Source: JavaTPoint

The third issue is that cross-platform apps are much harder to test. You must evaluate your code against various screen sizes, hardware specs, and OS versions.

This can lengthen your test time or force you to sacrifice testing thoroughness. Either way, it could produce a less secure app.

Lastly, cross-platform apps can’t maximize the native security features of the underlying OS. For instance, it’s easy to set up Face ID authentication in a native iOS app.

In contrast, it could take more time to implement that in a cross-platform tool.

How to overcome these challenges

These challenges can seem daunting, but you have a great chance of overcoming them if you team up with an experienced team like DECODE.

With dozens of successful cross-platform apps under our belt, we know a thing or two about developing reliable, secure, and UX-friendly cross-platform apps.

And we can always draw upon our pool of 70+ professionals to get any expertise we need.

Interested? Contact us today, and let’s discuss your next project!

long white bg
Categories
Written by

Toni Vujevic

React Native Team Lead

Skilled in React Native, iOS and backend, Toni has a demonstrated knowledge of the information technology and services industry, with plenty of hands-on experience to back it up. He’s also an experienced Cloud engineer in Amazon Web Services (AWS), passionate about leveraging cloud technologies to improve the agility and efficiency of businesses. One of Toni’s most special traits is his talent for online shopping. In fact, our delivery guy is convinced that ‘Toni Vujević’ is a pseudonym for all DECODErs.

Related articles