14 Programming Languages for Mobile App Development
Years ago, there were only options ways to create a mobile app—one code for iOS apps and one code for Android. But developers today have significantly more options for coding apps. I created this guide to help you understand the most popular programming languages and frameworks for mobile app development. You can use this information to decide which language to learn and invest in for your mobile app.
For the purposes of this resource, I’m going to skip over cookie-cutter types of mobile app builders. Technically, you don’t need to learn how to code use programming languages for that type of mobile app development platform. Check out our guide on the five ways to build apps for more information on those alternative methods.
Types of Mobile Apps
Before we continue, I just want to quickly cover the different types of app development from a coding perspective. Generally speaking, mobile app developers can build an app in one of these three categories:
Native app development is coded in a language that’s supported natively by the specific operating system of mobile devices. (Example: native iOS app vs. native Android app). This is used if you’re building an app specifically for the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
This is ideal for apps with a high level of customization that need to leverage native components of each device. It’s great for gaming apps, VR apps, and apps with extensive graphics. But one code won’t work on both platforms with native development.
Hybrid apps are for cross-platform development. These are coded in a single language that can run on multiple on both iOS and Android.
This speeds up the development timeline as you’ll only have to code everything once, as opposed to twice (once for each OS). Compared to native, you’ll lose a little bit of the flexibility in terms of what you can do with hybrid apps. But this is fine for the vast majority of developers.
The most common topic you’ll hear when discussing mobile application development is the difference between native and hybrid apps. This has become the great debate for developers for quite some time now.
As I briefly mentioned above, native apps are built for a particular operating system. So if you want to develop an app for iOS and Android, you would need to build specifically for iOS and specifically for Android, separately.
There are pros and cons to this method, along with the others. We’ll take a closer look at the advantages and drawbacks of these app development methods as we continue through this guide.
A PWA (progressive web app) is a lightweight app that runs in the URL of a device’s web browser. It looks and feels like a mobile app, but it’s not delivered natively on the device.
Developers who have experience with web development can easily create PWAs. You’ll should already be familiar with the coding languages used during the development process. So there’s not as much of a learning curve.
With that said, these apps will be a bit more limited in terms of the ability to use native device components.
Best Programming Languages for App Development
Let’s take a closer look at the top 14 coding languages for mobile applications. Each option has advantages and disadvantages depending on your skill level and intended use case. Regardless of your hardware and software, you can find coders and languages below that fit your needs.
iOS Programming Languages
The iOS platform was created by Apple. If you develop an iOS app, it will work across the Apple ecosystem like iPhones and iPads. Apps built using an iOS programming language can be made available on the Apple App Store for users to download.
In order to build an iOS app, you need to have an Apple developer account to get started. You’ll also need the Xcode IDE installed on a Mac computer (you can’t build and debug properly on a Windows computer).
Xcode comes with everything you need to create apps for all Apple devices. This development toolkit has a code editor, simulators, a debugger, and SDKs.
Let’s take a closer look at each one of these Apple programming languages below.
Objective-C was the first programming language by Apple to support mobile applications on its platform. It’s an OO (object oriented programming language) that uses syntax from C and the object oriented aspects of SmallTalk.
The language isn’t very developer-friendly. One of the drawbacks is that the syntax feels clunky, and the square brackets can be tough to debug.
Swift was introduced in 2014 as an Apple programming language. It was eventually available for development in Xcode the following year.
This language has quickly become the developers’ preferred language when building an iOS app. If you’re getting started with iOS app development, this one of the best programming languages to consider. The usage of Objective-C has declined since Swift’s arrival. For any modern applications built on Apple, Swift is heavily encouraged.
Compared to Objective-C and other programming languages, Swift is easier and more compact. Any Apple developer who already knows how to build with Objective-C shouldn’t have any issues switching to Swift.
Programming Languages For Android App Development
Android is an open-source software development platform run by Google. While Google has its own mobile device options for phones and tablets, other manufacturers, like Samsung, Huawei, Microsoft, and more also produce phones and tablets that are powered by the Android OS.
To build an Android app, you need to get the Android development toolkit that has debuggers, emulators, and the required SDK. The best integrated development environment (IDE) for Android app development is Android Studio. This makes it easier if you’re developing mobile apps for Android. There are other options available, including cross platform app development tools (to build Android and iOS apps, and mobile apps for other operating systems) but Android Studio is definitely the most popular for Android app development.
Android IDEs can typically be run on any OS, including Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Let’s take a closer look at two Android programming languages—Java and Kotlin.
Since Android was officially launched in 2008, Java has been the default development language to write Android apps. This object-oriented language was initially created back in 1995.
While Java has its fair share of faults, it’s still the most popular language for Android development since it runs on a virtual machine. As an object oriented option for mobile development, Java is commonly used to develop Android apps.
Most of the other Android languages are considered a version of Java or a flavor of Java.
Google announced that it would start supporting the Kotlin programming language in 2017. It’s an alternative language to traditional Java for Android development, and it runs on the Java Virtual Machine. Even as a new language, it’s very popular.
Kotlin and Java are interoperable, meaning they can make use of the same information. All of your Java libraries can be accessed with Kotlin. From an execution standpoint, the Kotlin language complies with Java Bytecode. Overall, it’s considered a neater and cleaner version of Java.
Native Development App Programming Languages
As I said before, all of the programming languages for native mobile apps. have their pros and cons. Whether you’re using Objective-C or Swift for Apple or using Java or some other flavor of Java (like Kotlin) for Android, these are the benefits and drawbacks.
Native Programming Pros:
- Most control over the device
- Low-level coding for cutting edge technologies that are added on to the device
- Fastest access to latest and greatest features through your language
- Fastest in execution bottom line
Native Programming Cons:
- Slowest to develop
- Most costly development method
- Takes highest skilled and specialized mobile app developers to build for iOS and Android
- High barrier to entry
While native programming languages give you the most control over your app, they are difficult to learn and take a long time to develop. Unless you’re building a highly specialized app, you probably won’t need to go the native route.
Hybrid Programming Languages
Hybrid applications are developed once, but written with a programming language that works for multiple platforms.
Most commonly, a single development will work for both iOS and Android. Although some hybrid languages extend their functionality to other platforms, like progressive web apps (PWA) or mobile web apps. This is nice to have for those of you moving into a more web-friendly environment.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these options below.
Developed by Microsoft, C# (pronounced C sharp) is another object-oriented programming language. It’s a popular programming language for game development and command line scripting for Android operating systems.
Other low-code types of alternatives like OutSystems and Kony have an SDK that can be used with different languages, not just one. There are other languages for mobile app development that use system programming language with syntax similar to C#.
Using an IDE for hybrid development, the C# code is cross-compiled to run natively on iOS and Android devices.
Microsoft eventually acquired the Xamarin framework, which allows app developers to program using C# against other frameworks. Technically, Xamarin isn’t a language. It’s an open-source development platform for iOS, Android, and Windows applications.
It’s a .NET platform that uses C# as its core language.
Like Reactive Native, Appcelerator also uses JS to communicate with functions to a native framework. Appcelerator Titanium makes it possible to create native apps for iOS, Android, and Windwows.
- Using Java to manipulate something native
The barrier of entry to learning this programming method is around a medium level.
Cordova/PhoneGap and Ionic type frameworks are really just built on top of the Apache Cordova programming language. Hybrid mobile application development using this programming language are built by porting over a web experience into a native experience.
What does this mean?
- Low barrier to entry
- Anyone with a web development background can easily start programming this way
- Learning curve is easy
- Giving up a little bit of frame rate
If you’re developing mobile games, a machine learning native app, or augmented reality (AR) native app, this solution probably isn’t best programming language for you. Both of those require a higher frame rate.
PWA Programming Languages
Progressive web apps offer app-like functions from a mobile site. It’s a fast and reliable alternative to traditional mobile websites. Unlike a website, web applications can operate offline, and access native device capabilities (like camera, GPS, etc.).
Here are some of the programming languages you can use for PWA:
Ruby is a general-purpose programming language that can be used for a wide range of use cases, including PWAs. Lots of developers rely on Ruby for web applications because of its simplicity.
The language has been around since 1990, and continues to be favorite in the development community today.
While shipping code with Ruby is easy, finding bugs and debugging errors is not always as simple. So just keep that in mind if you’re going this route.
Python is another general-purpose coding language. It’s an object-oriented language that gives developers the flexibility for small and large-scale deployments alike.
In addition to PWAs, Python is commonly used for data analytics, data visualization, websites, task automation, and other types of software.
Most developers would agree that Python is a bit more challenging than Java. It has a steeper learning curve compared to other languages in this category.
CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is a rule-based language. It helps describe the presentation of code that’s written in markup languages, like HTML.
You can’t create a PWA with CSS alone. But you’ll likely use it as an addition to your JS or HTML code.
Compared to other options for PWA, this has a lower barrier to entry for those of you who have some basic technical knowledge and coding experience. But it’s not quite as flexible as a Ruby or Python for PWA.
PHP is a general scripting language that was first introduced in 1994. While it has several potential use cases, PHP can also be used to assist PWA.
With that said, it’s not necessarily the best option. You can use PHP on the backend for application, but you’d still want to serve HTML, CSS, and JS on the front end. Using PHP to just create a website wouldn’t have the same look, feel, and capability as a traditional PWA.
In short, PHP alone won’t deliver a progressive web application. But the lots of your work can still be written in PHP.
Choosing the Right Programming Language
As you can see, each programming language has its pros and cons. You can’t definitively say that one is better than another. It all depends on the app type, budget, timeline, and technical knowledge.
Native development is typically the most expensive and most challenging to learn. But it’s necessary for certain types of apps, like gaming apps.
Hybrid languages are easier to learn for users who have some technical knowledge and web development experience. You can get your app to market quickly with this method since you won’t have to use two deployments.
In addition to choosing a specific language, you’ll need to choose your approach. We have a complete guide that breaks down the differences between synchronous vs. asynchronous programming to help you decide between these two popular methods.
When to Use a Coding App
Coding apps like Grasshopper, Sololearn, and Mimo are all excellent options for beginners. So if you’re just starting your journey as a developer, you’ll definitely find these tools helpful.
Alternatively, you can use an app builder to create an app without writing a single line of coding. No-code app creators like BuildFire make it possible for anyone, regardless of technical knowledge, to create an app for iOS and Android simultaneously.
Unless you want to become a developer, using an app creator is the best option. The time it will take you to learn different programming languages probably isn’t worth the investment if you just need to create one app for your business. Even if you do learn how to code, your first app likely won’t be ready for real users.
MBaaS (Mobile Backend as a Service)
All of the hybrid frameworks and native programming language to build mobile apps all have two things in common—they all need to be built from scratch, and they are all missing a major component.
Anybody who has developed a mobile application in the past understands that the app itself is only a portion of the entire environment and the total solution. You’ll also need a massive mobile backend as a service—better known as MBaaS.
What do you need an MBaaS for? Here are a few examples:
- Host your data
- Host user profiles
- Compile analytics
- Send push notifications
The list goes on and on. These are all servers living in the cloud that you need to develop as well to support your application. Unless you’re building a simple app, like a calculator, you generally need some type of user authentication, database, CMS, etc.
This is where the BuildFire JS comes into play.
Things like authentication and push notifications are built on top of an existing platform. That platform has all of the typical functionality that most apps need, like user logins, password reset functionality, access to databases, access to CMS platforms, and so on.
With the BuildFire JS, you only need to build what is unique to your specific application.
Analytics servers, databases, push notification servers, API gateways, and so much more are all part of the massive MBaaS provided by BuildFire.
All of this is bundled in an open-source environment that allows people to constantly add new features to the platform. You can integrate those features into your app without the worry of security problems or licensing.
Once all is said and done, and you’ve developed your app with BuildFire, there’s a backend control panel that allows you to administer your app over the air without having to deal with the hurdles of publishing and upgrades.
Since your app is built on a platform with an MBaaS, you won’t have to worry about any new policies, regulations, compliance issues, features, and more on iOS and Android. BuildFire makes sure that your app stays compliant.
Final Thoughts: Best Programming Languages
What’s the best programming language for mobile app development?
There is no right or wrong answer to what programming language you should learn or what framework you should invest in. The best programming languages for me and my mobile apps might not be the best for you and your app development scenario. All of the options listed in this guide are good and valid choices to consider. They each have pros and cons. There are even additional programming languages for mobile app development, like Python for server-side programming, and more.
You just need to find out what’s best for you, your business, and your goals.
What type of application are you building? What does the application need? Where do you want to put the most effort? Do you want to develop it once or multiple times? What mobile device will the end-user be on? Are you building for multiple platforms?
What about data access control, statistically typed programming language, or interpreted programming language?
Will you be leveraging any low-code/no-code development tools?
These are some of the questions that you need to ask yourself to determine where your time, effort, and resources are best served. At the end of the day, just make sure you can go to market quickly with the best possible app.