10 min read

Previously, when you wanted to build for both web and mobile, you would have to invest in separate teams with separate development workflows. Isn’t that annoying? JavaScript-driven frameworks have changed this equation. You can now build mobile apps without having to learn a completely new language such as Kotlin, Java, Objective C, and development approach and use your current skills of web development.

One of the first technologies to do this was Cordova, which enabled web developers to package their web apps into a native binary, and to access device APIs through plugins. Since then, developers have created a variety of alternative approaches to using JavaScript to drive native iOS and Android applications.

In this article we will talk about three of these frameworks: React Native, Ionic, and NativeScript. After introducing you to these frameworks, we will move on to their comparison and try to find which one of them is best on what scenarios.

What exactly are native and hybrid applications?

Before we start with the comparison, let’s answer this simple question as we are going to use these terms a lot in this article.

What are native applications?

Native applications are built for a particular platform and are written in a particular language. For example, Android apps are written in Java or Kotlin, and iOS apps are written in Objective C and Swift.

The word “native” here refers to a platform such as Android, iOS, or Windows phone. Designed for a specific platform, these apps are considered to be more efficient in terms of performance, as well as being more reliable.

The downside of native applications is that a separate version of the app must be developed for each platform. As it is written in a completely different programming language, you can’t reuse any piece of code from another platform version. That’s why native app development is considered to be more time consuming and expensive in comparison to hybrid applications, at least in theory.

What are hybrid applications?

Unlike native applications, hybrid applications are cross-platform. They are written in languages such as C# or JavaScript and compiled to be executed on each platform. For device specific interactions, hybrid applications utilize the support of plugins.Developing them is faster and simpler. Also, they are less expensive as you have to develop only one app instead of developing multiple native apps for different platforms.

The major challenge with hybrid apps is that they run in WebView which means they depend on the native browser. Because of this, hybrid apps aren’t as fast as native apps. You can also face serious challenges if the app requires complex interaction with the device. After all, there’s a limit to what plugins can achieve on this front. As all the rendering is done using web tech, we can’t produce a truly native user experience.

Let’s now move on to the overview of the three frameworks:

What is React Native?

Source: React Native

The story of React Native started in the summer of 2013 as Facebook’s internal hackathon project and it was later open sourced in 2015. React Native is a JavaScript framework used to build native mobile applications. As you might have already guessed from its name, React Native is based on React, a JavaScript library for building user interfaces. The reason why it is called “native” is that the UI built with React Native consists of native UI widgets that look and feel consistent with the apps you built using native languages.

How does React Native work?

Under the hood, React Native translates your UI definition written in Javascript/JSX into a hierarchy of native views correct for the target platform. For example, if we are building an iOS app, it will translate the Text primitive to a native iOS UIView, and in Android, it will result with a native TextView. So, even though we are writing a JavaScript application, we do not get a web app embedded inside the shell of a mobile one. We are getting a “real native app”.

But how does this “translation” takes place? React Native runs on JavaScriptCore, the JavaScript engine on iOS and Android, and then renders native components. React components return markup from their render function, which describes how they should look. With React for the Web, this translates directly to the browser’s DOM. For React Native, this markup is translated to suit the host platform, so a might become an Android-specific TextView.

Applications built with React Native

All the recent features in the Facebook app such as Blood Donations, Crisis Response, Privacy Shortcuts, and Wellness Checks were built with React Native. Other companies or products that use this framework include Instagram, Bloomberg, Pinterest, Skype, Tesla, Uber, Walmart, Wix, Discord, Gyroscope, SoundCloud Pulse, Tencent QQ, Vogue, and many more.

What is Ionic framework?

Ionic

Source: Ionic Framework

The Ionic framework was created by Drifty Co. and was initially released in 2013. It is an open source, frontend SDK for developing hybrid mobile apps with familiar web technologies such as HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. With Ionic, you will be able to build and deploy apps that work across multiple platforms, such as native iOS, Android, desktop, and the web as a Progressive Web App.

How does Ionic framework work?

Ionic is mainly focused on an application’s look and feel, or the UI interaction. This tells us that it’s not meant to replace Cordova or your favorite JavaScript framework. In fact, it still needs a native wrapper like Cordova to run your app as a mobile app. It uses these wrappers to gain access to host operating systems features such as Camera, GPS, Flashlight, etc. Ionic apps run in low-level browser shell like UIWebView in iOS or WebView in Android, which is wrapped by tools like Cordova/PhoneGap.

Currently, Ionic Framework has official integration with Angular, and support for Vue and React are in development. They have recently released the Ionic 4 beta version, which comes with better support for Angular. This version supports the new Angular tooling and features, ensuring that Ionic apps follow Angular standards and conventions.

Applications built with Ionic

Some of the apps that use Ionic framework are MarketWatch, Pacifica, Sworkit, Vertfolio and many more. You can view the full list of applications built with Ionic framework on their website.

What is NativeScript?

NativeScript

Source: NativeScript

NativeScript is developed by Telerik (a subsidiary of Progress) and was first released in 2014. It’s an open source framework that helps you build apps using JavaScript or any other language that transpiles to JavaScript, for example, TypeScript. It directly supports the Angular framework and supports the Vue framework via a community-developed plugin.

Mobile applications built with NativeScript result in fully native apps, which use the same APIs as if they were developed in Xcode or Android Studio. Additionally, software developers can re-purpose third-party libraries from CocoaPods, Android Arsenal, Maven, and npm.js in their mobile applications without the need for wrappers.

How does NativeScript work?

Since the applications are built in JavaScript there is a need of some proxy mechanism to translate JavaScript code to the corresponding native APIs. This is done by the runtime parts of NativeScript, which act as a “bridge” between the JavaScript and the native world (Android and iOS). The runtimes facilitate calling APIs in the Android and iOS frameworks using JavaScript code. To do that JavaScript Virtual Machines are used – Google’s V8 for Android and WebKit’s JavaScriptCore implementation distributed with iOS 7.0+.

Applications built with NativeScript

Some of the applications built with NativeScript are Strudel, BitPoints Wallet, Regelneef, and Dwitch.

React Native vs Ionic vs NativeScript

Now that we’ve introduced all the three frameworks, let’s tackle the difficult question: which framework is better?

#1 Learning curve

The time for learning any technology will depend on the knowledge you already have. If you are a web developer familiar with HTML5, CSS, and Javascript, it will be fairly easy for you to get started with all the three frameworks. But if you are coming from a mobile development background, then the learning curve will be a bit steep for all the three. Among the three of them, the Ionic framework is easy to learn and implement and they also have great documentation.

#2 Community support

Going by the GitHub stats, React Native is way ahead the other two frameworks be it in terms of popularity of the repository or the number of contributors. This year’s GitHub Octoverse report also highlighted that React Native is one of the most active open source project currently. The following table shows the stats at the time of writing:

Framework Stars Forks Contributors
React Native 70150 15712 1767
Ionic 35664 12205 272
NativeScript 15200 1129 119

Source: GitHub

Comparing these three frameworks by the weekly package downloads from the npm website also indicate that React Native is the most popular framework among the three. The comparison is shown as follows:

Source: npm trends

#3 Performance

Ionic apps, as mentioned earlier, are hybrid apps, which means they run on the WebView.  Hybrid applications, as mentioned in the beginning, are arguably slower as compared to the JavaScript-driven native applications, as their speed depends on the WebView. This also makes Ionic not so suitable for high performance or UI intensive apps such as for game development.

React Native, in turn, provides faster application speed. Since, React works separately from the main UI thread, your application can maintain high performance without sacrificing capability. Additionally, the introduction of the React Fiber algorithm, which was implemented with the goal of visual rendering acceleration adds up to its better performance.

In the case of NativeScript, rendering slows down a NativeScript application. Also, the applications built with NativeScript for the Android platform are larger in size. This large size of the application influences the performance in a negative way.

#4 Marketplace

The marketplace for Ionic is great. The tool lists many starter apps, themes, and plugins. Plugins range from a DatePicker to Google Maps. Similarly, NativeScript has its official marketplace listing 923 plugins in total. React Native, on the other hand, does not have a dedicated marketplace from Facebook. However, there are some companies that do provide React Native plugins and starter apps.

#5 Reusability of the codebase

Because Ionic is a framework for developing “wrapped applications”, it wins the code reusability contest hands down. Essentially, the very concept of Ionic is “write once, run everywhere”.

NativeScript isn’t far behind Ionic in terms of code reusability. In August this year, the Progress team announced that they are working on a Code-Sharing Project. To realize this code-sharing dream, together the Angular and NativeScript teams have created nativescript-schematics, a schematic that enables you to build both web and mobile apps from a single project.

In the case of React Native, you will be able to reuse the logic and structure of the components, however, you would have to rewrite the UI used in them. React Native follows a different approach: “learn once, write everywhere”. This means that the same team of developers who built the iOS version will be able to understand enough to build the Android version, but they still need to have some knowledge of Android. With React Native you will end up having two separate projects. That’s fine because they are for two different platforms, but their internal structure will still be very similar.

So, which JavaScript mobile framework is best?

All three mobile frameworks come with their pros and cons. These frameworks are meant for the same objective but different project requirements. Choosing any one of them depends on your project, your user requirements, and the skills of your team. While Ionic comes with the benefit of a single codebase, it’s not suitable for graphics-intensive applications. React Native provides better performance than the other two, but adds the overhead of creating native shell for each platform. The best thing about NativeScript is that it supports Vue, which is one of fastest growing JavaScript frameworks. But its downside is that it makes the app size large.

In the future we will see more such frameworks to help developers quickly prototype, develop, and ship cross-platform application. One of them is Flutter by Google which is already creating a wave.

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