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Ionic vs. React Native: Comparing Popular Cross-Platform Development Tools

For a developer, the desire to deliver faster and minimize efforts is the most natural thing to do. Ever since the emergence of the first hybrid frameworks and platforms, they have been in the focus of everybody’s attention, because they provided a shortcut to speedy delivery and easy maintenance of a shared code base. Web developers could now use their JavaScript and HTML skills to build great-looking mobile apps that behaved exactly or almost exactly as their native counterparts. There are multiple cross-platform tools on the market today, but for the purpose of this article, we’d like to compare Ionic and React Native, the two products that we use at Cortlex most of the time.

Ionic

Ionic is a popular open source, cross-platform framework that enables front-end developers with virtually no knowledge of the mobile domain to build fully functional apps for iOS and Android. Like many similar frameworks, Ionic uses WebView for UI rendering. In plain English, it means that an app created with Ionic is just a website written in JavaScript/CSS/HTML with its own little server that is wrapped into a container native to iOS or Android. In this approach, Ionic works in a tandem with Cordova, which is responsible for HTML, JS, and the rendering function. Although JS apps are naturally quite limited in their ability to utilize the device’s hardware resources, such as the accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, camera and such, in case of Ionic, they can be accessed through numerous plug-ins.

Fortunately, these minor limitations do not make Ionic inferior to any of its competitors. On the contrary, if the application you are building does not make heavy use of the device’s native hardware features and is mostly content-based, there is no point in going native. In such cases, Ionic will offer the benefits of faster time to market, a shared code base for any platform, and economy on resources, since you won’t need to hire native iOS or Android developers to get the job done. In addition, Ionic does not have a steep learning curve, so your in-house JS team can wrap their heads around this technology in virtually no time, especially if they have worked with Angular that Ionic is based on.

The trade-offs of using Ionic are:

  • Slightly slower performance (compared to native apps)
  • Animations, transitions and other effects may not be exactly on par with the ones found in native apps
  • Limited access to hardware resources(although possible via plug-ins)
  • Non-native UI components

React Native

React Native is a very powerful cross-platform development framework based, as the name suggests, on React. Originally developed by Facebook, it has now been embraced by major products that hundreds of millions of people use on a daily basis, including Airbnb, Skype, Instagram and the likes. When developing with RN, you write code as React components that are later converted into native UI components almost indistinguishable from the ones written in Objective-C/Swift or Java/Kotlin. There is no WebView to render to and no sluggish DOM to work with - just programming on a certain level of abstraction that is then translated into native UI elements. In other words, apps created with the help of React Native look and act like real native applications. However, as well as Ionic, React Native does not offer access to all hardware and OS features. React Native is more of an approach to building native apps rather than a hybrid development framework, moreover, it offers a level of performance comparable to native apps.

However, React Native is a lot more complex than Ionic or any other JS/HTML5-based frameworks and has a steep learning curve. You need the right people for the job and they may be hard to find on the market, especially if time is of the essence.

Comparison and Conclusion

Both Ionic and React Native are great at what they were designed to do - letting you build mobile apps without knowing Objective-C, Swift, Java or Kotlin. However, the way they do it is different. Ionic is absolutely indispensable for teams that need an app built, but only have the typical web stack at hand or for projects where performance and native functionality is a lower priority over time to market. With React Native, on the other hand, it takes more time and skill to build an app, but the result is totally worth it and is almost indistinguishable from proper native applications.

Both frameworks have large and thriving communities and an army of contributors, making them a good choice for long-term projects. The choice of the right platform essentially boils down to a few key factors, as shown below.

If you

  • Need a cross-platform app built fast, but only have a team of web developers;
  • Don’t mind sacrificing some performance for the speed of delivery;
  • Are not extremely interested in access to OS functions and hardware components;
  • Are on a tight budget;

Go with Ionic.

If you

  • Need native-like appearance and behavior;
  • Need features that require full access to hardware features;
  • Have time and resources to hire or train React Native developers;

You won’t go wrong with React Native.

We at Cortlex will be happy to analyze your particular case and advise on the best approach to developing your apps based on these and other important criteria. Just give us a call or drop us a line to start a conversation that has every chance to evolve in a successful app delivery!