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14 Programming Languages for Mobile App Development

Programming Language For Mobile App Development

Have you been thinking about learning how to code for mobile app development? The first thing you need to do is figure out which programming language to learn.

Years ago, when I first started developing, there were only two ways to build a mobile app—one for iOS and one for Android.

But today, there is a wide array of languages, frameworks, SDKs, and tools that you can use to build an app.

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 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 for that. Check out our guide on the five ways to build a mobile app for more information on those alternative methods.

The information below is intended for those of you who want to code. From low-level to high-level coding, hybrid apps, and native development, this guide contains everything you need to know about programming languages for app development. Let’s dive in.

The Best Programing Languages and Frameworks for Mobile Apps

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 apps — Coded in a language that’s supported natively by a specific device’s operating system. (Example: native iOS app vs. native Android app).
  • Progressive web applicaitons (PWA) — 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.

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.

Programming Languages for iOS Apps

The iOS platform was created by Apple. If you develop an iOS app, it will work across Apple devices 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.

There are two native programming languages for iOS development—Objective-C and Swift.

Let’s take a closer look at each one of these Apple programming languages below.

Objective-C

Objective-C was the first programming language by Apple to support mobile applications on its platform. It’s an OO (object-oriented) language that uses syntax from C and the OO 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

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 choice when building an iOS app. 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, 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 devices for phones and tablets, other manufacturers, like Samsung, Huawei, 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. There are other options available, but Android Studio is definitely the most popular.

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.

Java

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.

Most of the other Android languages are considered a version of Java or a flavor of Java.

Kotlin

Google announced that it would start supporting the Kotlin programming language in 2017. It’s an alternative language to traditional Java for Android development. 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 Programming Languages

As I said before, all of the native application programming languages 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 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.

Programming Languages for Hybrid Apps

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 PWAs (progressive web apps). This is nice to have for those of you moving into a more web-friendly environment.

When you’re building a hybrid application, you’re generally dealing with some sort of JavaScript-based language, framework, or toolkit.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these options below.

Xamarin and C#

Developed by Microsoft, C# (pronounced C sharp) is another object-oriented programming language. Microsoft eventually acquired the Xamarin framework, which allows app developers to program using C# against other frameworks.

Other low-code types of alternatives like OutSystems and Kony have an SDK that can be used with different languages, not just one.

Using an IDE for hybrid development, the C# code is cross-compiled to run natively on iOS and Android devices.

JavaScript Languages

The most popular hybrid languages use JavaScript frameworks. It’s kind of a general-purpose programming language for multiple use cases.

  • React Native
  • Appcelerator
  • Cordova/PhoneGap

These are just a few of the top options. Google even has some niche builders called Dart and Flutter.

React Native and Appcelerator

Reactive Native and Appcelerator both use JavaScript to communicate with pre-built functionality that is native to their framework. This allows you to manipulate the UI, collect data, and retrieve data so you can present it to the user.

Basically, this means that you’re heavily relying on JavaScript to manipulate native components. Programming an app this way has its pros and cons.

React Native and Appcelerator Pros:

  • Using Java to manipulate something native
  • Access native functionality directly from JavaScript

React Native and Appcelerator Cons:

  • Doesn’t tap into things like HTML5 or CSS, which are technologies that are generally used with anybody developing in JavaScript to freely manipulate their own user interface

The barrier of entry to learning this programming method is around a medium level.

Cordova/PhoneGap

Cordova/PhoneGap and Ionic type frameworks are really just built on top of the Apache Cordova programming language. Hybrid applications using this language are built by porting over a web experience into a native experience.

What does this mean?

This method allows you to build just like you would do for a website. So if you’re a web developer, you’ll feel right at home here. It uses Javascript, HTML, and CSS. That web environment is ported over natively to iOS and Android.

Pros:

  • Low barrier to entry
  • Anyone with a web development background can easily start programming this way
  • Learning curve is easy

Cons:

  • Giving up a little bit of frame rate

If you’re developing a game or augmented reality (AR) app, this solution probably isn’t best language for you. Both of those require a higher frame rate.

MBaaS (Mobile Backend as a Service)

All of the hybrid frameworks and native languages 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.

BuildFire JS

This is where the BuildFire JS comes into play.

The BuildFire JS framework allows you to build just like you would in a Cordova Hybrid platform. You can use web technology like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. But this framework doesn’t force you to build everything from scratch.

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

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. 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 languages, 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?

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.

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Ian Blair

BuildFire Co-Founder. I'm a digital marketer by trade and an entrepreneur at heart. I'm here to help businesses go mobile and build apps more efficiently than before.

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