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Mobile Development Languages

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Read Time: 11 mins

If you want to develop a mobile app, you'll need to know a programming language for mobile development. But it can be hard to choose the best language (or languages) for a project. There are a lot of options out there, and in this post I'll help you narrow them down so that you can pick the best.

Your choice of programming language depends on what you're building. For certain apps, mobile developers may not need all the available features of a particular language. In other situations, a single app may require more than one language. In this tutorial, I'll go through various mobile development languages and highlight some of the details that can help you make the right decision. 

Native Android Languages

Java

According to the TIOBE Index, Java is the third most popular programming language as of January 2022. If you want to develop Android apps, you'll most likely to stick to Java. It has a large and established developer community, and that means you can easily get technical support and help. 

So, when you're developing for mobile with Java, you are free to come up with any type of app you can think of. The only limits will be your imagination and the level of your Java knowledge.

Kotlin

Kotlin was designed and developed by JetBrains, the Czech company known for their popular IDE, IntelliJ IDEA. Google's Android team announced in 2017 that they were officially adding support for the Kotlin programming language. 

Kotlin was developed to address some of the issues in Java. According to the language's fans, Kotlin syntax is simpler, cleaner, and leads to less code bloat. This helps you focus more on solving the actual problem, rather than struggling with verbose syntax. Also, you can use Kotlin and Java together in the same project, and that makes it really powerful.

Native iOS Languages

Swift

If you want to develop for iOS devices, Swift might be the language for you. Introduced in 2014 and declared open source in 2015, Swift has become the dominant language for iOS developers. 

According to the TIOBE programming language index for January 2022, Swift is the 10th most popular programming language.

Apple added some great new features in Swift 5.5, including async/await, structured concurrency, actors, and more. Apple's huge efforts to promote Swift clearly indicate that it wants this new language to become the mainstream programming language for its app ecosystem.

Objective-C

Objective-C was the original development language for iOS. While Swift language is the state of the art for iOS development, many projects still rely on Objective-C. So the transition from Objective-C to Swift is somewhat slow, and you may still need both of them for some projects.

Cross-Platform Languages

JavaScript With React Native

JavaScript has a long history going back to the early days of the World Wide Web. A very popular front-end and server-side language, it lets web developers do everything from enhancing the user experience of their websites to building complete web apps. 

Today, there are several JavaScript frameworks that specifically target mobile development platforms, and one such framework is React Native.

React Native is a framework that enables traditional web developers to combine JavaScript and React syntax in order to build apps for iOS, Android, and the web from a single codebase. This means that as a developer you only have to write a single version of your app, and it will run on both iOS and Android.

React Native feels just like React DOM for the web, but instead of using HTML and the DOM as building blocks for the user interface, it uses the native components that you'll find on iOS and Android.

The philosophy behind React Native is "learn once, write anywhere". This means that once you learn React, you can write applications for the web, Android, and iOS.

JavaScript With Ionic (For Hybrid Apps)

Another framework for building cross-platform applications in Ionic. Ionic allows mobile developers to build a hybrid mobile app with existing web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

The idea behind Ionic is to write your code once and run it across multiple platforms seamlessly. A hybrid application is basically just a web app that gets embedded on a native device through a WebView. A hybrid app is not able to communicate directly with a lot of native device features, so it uses a bridge known as Apache Cordova that wraps native code in a JavaScript API so it can be accessed by the web app.

Ionic framework is beneficial in creating elegant apps using its pre-designed UI components, themes, typographies, and other elements.

Dart With Flutter

Flutter is a UI framework for developing apps on iOS, Android, the web, and desktop. In 2015, Google released the initial version of Flutter, and in 2018 it launched the first stable version of the framework.  

Flutter's growing popularity is driven by its vast array of features. At its core, the framework combines a high-performance graphics engine with the Dart programming language. In development, Dart provides full type safety and hot reload to help you build reliable apps quickly.

In production, Dart compiles to native machine code. This means that your graphics will render beautifully on any platform.

Flutter doesn't require any additional bridges to work on different devices, and it's not like WebView frameworks like Ionic.  Flutter has its own technology to compile source code directly to machine code. This setup greatly improves speed and performance.

Other Languages

C

C is the oldest language on this list, but it is perennially one of the most popular languages on the TIOBE index. Just like Java, its community is full of seasoned developers who could offer you valuable advice on how to write bug-free code. 

Created by Dennis Ritchie while working for Bell Labs, C is a widely adopted and powerful language that allows you to directly manipulate the low-level operations of a computer. If you want to use Android NDK (Native Development Kit), you'll need to get familiar with the C language.

C++

If you are familiar with C, then you'll really enjoy reading and writing C++ code. C++ is an extension of C, with more high-level features and support for object-oriented programming. C++ is also a favorite language of Android NDK developers. You can use C++ to develop Windows Mobile apps too. C++ goes head to head with Java in the field of software development, and it's really worth mastering.

How to Classify the Languages

Mobile apps can be grouped into three categories, namely native, hybrid, and native cross-platform. Native apps can fully utilize all the OS facilities and features, and they are the fastest when it comes to performance. However, you need to maintain different codebases for different mobile platforms, as each platform uses different programming languages.

For example, Android makes use of Java or Kotlin plus C/C++ to develop native apps. Apple's iOS platform relies on Objective-C and Swift as its native languages. All of these native app programming languages are compiled, rather than interpreted.

Hybrid mobile apps are actually websites that are designed to work with mobile devices too. A user can access them via a mobile browser as if they are visiting a website on a desktop computer. The combination of HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript is the obvious choice if you want to develop web apps. Ionic is an example of these WebView-based platforms.

Recently, a new batch of mobile cross-platform frameworks has emerged. These frameworks combine the best features of native apps and hybrid apps—they're fast and light and can access the full power of the native device. Most of these are coded with JavaScript and other web languages, so a lot of code can be reused between platforms. React Native is the leading example of this class of mobile cross-platform frameworks.

Comparison of Features

Before getting deeper into the detailed language features, you must select a platform. You can refer to the article Mobile Development Platforms to get an idea of various platforms and how to pick the one that suits you best. Assuming that you've already selected a mobile development platform, let's see how these languages compare in terms of their features.

Native Android

If you want to develop for native Android, Java and Kotlin are your obvious choices. So let's have a look at them.

Null Safety

Kotlin has better control over Null references, so the famous NullPointerException bugs (common in Java) are much easier to eliminate. This reduces development time and improves programmer productivity.

Concurrency

Although Java supports concurrent operations, the relevant code may suffer heavily from readability and maintainability issues. Kotlin addresses these issues by using coroutines. The resulting code is easy to read and easy to understand too.

Type System

Java's type system isn't consistent, and this can sometimes lead to confusion. In particular, the primitive types such as integer, boolean, and so on need to be handled as special cases. By contrast, Kotlin has a relatively simple and more versatile type system that minimizes programmer errors.

Supported Programming Styles

Although Java can theoretically support various programming styles, some developers believe that it overly promotes OOP (Object-Oriented Programming). Kotlin doesn't seem to enforce any particular style of programming, so developers have more freedom to choose an approach that fits best. However, Kotlin developers need to have a thorough knowledge of software architecture and development principles.

Which One to Choose?

In a nutshell, it seems that Kotlin is better than Java, but it may take some time for a complete transformation. One challenge is that programmers are used to the thinking patterns enforced by Java. Another is that Kotlin is a relatively new language, and certain features are still experimental.

Anyway, Google has clearly announced that they offer complete support for Kotlin. In fact, Android Studio, the official Android IDE, comes with full support for Kotlin. New features and capabilities are constantly added to Kotlin. Over the next few years, we are going to experience a transition period from Java to Kotlin, at least in native Android development.

Native iOS

Objective-C and Swift are the two options you have for iOS development. So let's have a look at each one's features.

Code Syntax

Swift has simpler and clearer syntax to help programmers achieve their goals with the minimum number of lines of code. This also helps reduce programmer errors and eases bug fixing.

Memory Management

Swift clearly beats Objective-C when it comes to memory management. Swift enforces more robust and reliable control mechanisms, allowing programmers to avoid undesirable memory leaks.

Performance

Execution of Swift code is much faster than that of Objective-C. This clearly leads to faster app performance and a better user experience.

Supported Programming Styles

Unlike Objective-C, Swift has built-in support for functional programming too. So developers don't have to limit themselves to any predefined programming styles. That helps developers understand the problem clearly and come up with a better solution.

Which One to Choose?

Just as Kotlin is slowly replacing Java in native Android development, Swift seems sure to thrive in native iOS development, forcing Objective-C to retire. Apple has already started extensive support for Swift, and that's going to get even better in the future. Like Android developers, iOS developers are also experiencing a transition period at the moment. 

While there are several code migration tools available, it may not be possible to fully convert Objective-C projects to Swift without issues. Sometimes, specific workarounds may be required, and that might need a fair knowledge of Objective-C. So the best strategy is to give priority to Swift and learn a bit of Objective-C only when it's absolutely necessary. Also, you need to keep an eye on the latest Swift developments and trends.

Cross-Platform Apps

JavaScript (coupled with other HTML5 technologies) is the most used cross-platform mobile development language. There are also other languages, such as Dart, but JavaScript has the broadest range of support and adoption. 

If you want to try out the cutting-edge of mobile development with Flutter, go ahead and learn Dart. But there's no guarantee the Flutter platform will still be around in a few years. If you want something tried-and-true, you should stick with JavaScript or its type-augmented sibling, TypeScript.

Conclusion

Choosing a mobile development language can be tricky if you don't understand the features of each one, along with the current industry trends. With this knowledge, though, it's easy to see that choosing a language heavily depends on the particular mobile development platform too.

I'm sure now you have a clearer picture of mobile app development languages and can match the relevance of their features to the latest development trends. So just get started coding your next app with confidence!

If you want some help getting started with a new language, check out some of the tutorials and video courses linked throughout this post, or some of our other posts on mobile development!

This post has been updated with contributions from Kingsley Ubah. Kingsley is passionate about creating content that educates and inspires readers. Hobbies include reading, football and cycling.

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