Today’s highly interconnected world is dominated by mobile devices—and mobile applications lie at the heart of it. Even when some like to think that it’s all about online tools now, people can’t get enough of apps. The 218 billion apps worldwide users downloaded to their devices during 2020 should be enough to support that claim.
There’s also the long-standing interest of companies, startups, and development teams to come up with new and exciting apps to quench that user thirst for new applications. Thus, around 100,000 new Android apps and 20,000 iOS apps are released every month, which goes to show that the mobile app market is alive and kicking.
But in such a sea of mobile alternatives, releasing an app that truly stands out can be extremely hard. That’s why people working on them have to take care of every little detail to make sure they can make a dent in the market. There are plenty of aspects to consider, from the idea and the target audience to the features of the app. Here, we’ll focus on one of those aspects that is sometimes overlooked: which framework you should use.
Naturally, there are plenty of frameworks for mobile app development, especially because there are several programming languages that are suited for building mobile apps. Yet, we’ll focus here on frameworks for developing cross-platform apps, basically because many companies see cross-platform solutions as the most cost-effective way to increase their app’s reach.
And if we’re talking about cross-platform, we definitely have to discuss the 2 biggest alternatives for software engineers today: React Native and Flutter. One is a critical darling and a well-established framework, the other a relative newcomer that has captivated mobile development teams around the world. Which one is best? Let’s find out.
Similar Starting Points
Before getting to the differences between React Native and Flutter, it’s important to point out the similarities. Because, even though most people see them as rivals, both frameworks serve the same purposes and have some things in common that can make you see them as alternatives fit for different projects.
Thus, some of the most important similarities between React Native and Flutter include:
- Both of them were built for cross-platform mobile app development.
- Both frameworks are backed and developed by huge companies. Facebook supports React Native while Google is behind Flutter.
- Both are open-source.
- Both can help you simultaneously develop Android and iOS with a shared codebase.
All those things might seem like minor details, but they are the pillars that explain why so many companies that don’t want to build native apps resort to either framework. Both of them work well, can help quickly build apps for the 2 major mobile ecosystems, and have thriving communities that can help engineers with any roadblock they might find throughout the life cycle.
Of course, those similarities don’t render React Native and Flutter as the same thing. In fact, there are crucial differences that influence which projects they can be used on. Let’s review each one.
React Native: An Effective Option for Established Developers
Other outstanding advantages of using React Native for mobile app development include:
- Fast Refresh, a feature that allows developers to see the impact of code changes instantly without rebuilding the app.
- It reduces the need for writing separate tests for Android and iOS, as engineers can apply the same testing on the code for both platforms.
- It’s mature and has a vast community, which means it has a strong performance and a wide support network with countless resources to help development teams.
Though it has a set of impressive pros, React Native also has some downsides you should consider, including:
- Despite its name, the resulting apps aren’t truly native. They are close in feel and performance but won’t be the same.
- React Native has only a few basic components out of the box. Using outside repos is possible, but it takes additional time and effort to make them work.
In spite of these downsides, React Native is a fairly popular mobile framework, with 11.5% reporting using it for their daily work. You can find what it can do firsthand in highly popular apps, including Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Skype, all of which were built with React Native.
Flutter: A Complete Out-of-the-Box Development Experience
Though I’ve been referring to it as a framework, the truth is that Flutter is more of a UI software development kit that comes packed with widgets and tools for you to build your mobile apps. Through them, you can create natively compiled applications not just for mobile but also for web and desktop, all of which use the same codebase.
That’s not bad at all, as you can focus on creating a single codebase for a cross-device solution that can ultimately run across different environments. That’s one of the advantages of using Flutter for mobile app development. Others include:
- Stateful Hot Reload, a feature similar to React Native’s Fast Refresh, which allows you to check code changes in milliseconds without losing state on emulators, simulators, and hardware.
- Flutter is platform-agnostic and, thanks to its own widgets and designs, you can have the exact same app on 2 different platforms. As it happens with React Native, this reduces the number of tests you need to write to test different apps.
- Flutter apps are very fast, as their UIs only redraw when a view changes. Additionally, it has a high-performance rendering engine that does all the work, so the applications have superior performance.
- The resulting apps rely on custom widgets through which you can build highly user-friendly UIs that have keen attention to detail.
Of course, Flutter does have a set of drawbacks you should consider before picking it for your mobile projects, including:
- Libraries and support are there (especially fostered by Google, Flutter’s creator), but there aren’t as many as in React Native.
- As it happens with React Native, Flutter apps are bigger than native ones.
Even for its drawbacks and its relatively young age, Flutter has a respectable share of the market with 7.2%. In fact, many companies are already trusting it, including Google, eBay, BMW, Alibaba, and Capital One.
So, Which One Should You Pick?
With the rising interest in cross-platform mobile development, it’s not surprising to see React Native and Flutter becoming more and more popular. That’s because both of them offer development teams the possibility to reduce the time to market of the apps they develop while reducing the amount of work they need to do so. It all lies on the availability of ready-made components and libraries that relieve teams from having to come up with code from scratch.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that React Native and Flutter are one and the same. In reality, they have several key differences that make each of them more suitable for certain projects.
Thus, you should use React Native when:
- You want to build an app using native UI components.
- You are tackling a complex and/or new idea that might need multiple resources and support.
On the other hand, you should consider Flutter when:
- Your engineers know Dart.
- Speed is of the utmost importance for the project.
- You want a brand-first design in your mobile app.
As you can see, neither one is the perfect solution for all kinds of projects. The best thing you can do is check them for yourself and talk to experienced mobile engineers to learn which one of these frameworks is better for your project.