Apache Cordova And Ionic Framework Apps Are Not Native Mobile Apps

If you’ve been keeping up with my content since the birth of The Polyglot Developer, you’ll know that I was once a huge advocate of Apache Cordova development using frameworks like Ionic Framework. Having been a web developer and coming from native Android development with Java, cross-platform development using hybrid technologies seemed like a logical next step. Fast-forward to now, I’m no longer using Apache Cordova with Ionic Framework and have gone back to native development.

I recently came across an article by Ionic’s CEO, Max Lynch, titled, Cordova/Ionic Apps are Native Apps trying to explain that Ionic applications are native mobile applications. There are some valid points made in this article, but as someone who spent several years using the technology as well as using applications built with the technology, it is not something I agree with as a whole.

Let me start by saying that I actively develop mobile applications, using various programming technologies and frameworks, some of which have even been released to iTunes and Google Play. There are benefits when it comes to developing with either a native framework or a hybrid web framework. The purpose of this article is not to tell you which road to travel, but to educate you on what Apache Cordova and Ionic Framework is not. Like Max’s article, this one will be opinionated as well.

Android and iOS Webviews Give a Native Experience, Kinda

A core point that Max tries to convey in his article is that the packaged Ionic applications use native components in Android and iOS, thus making them native. I have metal screws in my body, so can I tell people I’m a cyborg? To package an application that can be installed and listed for distribution in the app store, it needs to have the bare essentials. The bare essentials, in the case of Apache Cordova and Ionic, is a native webview.

We’re running in a native app, we’re just doing a lot of work in that pesky UIWebView.

Yes, the UIWebView is a native component for iOS. If you tear down the build, you’ll see a bunch of Objective-C files. If you’re a good marketer, you can sell applications built inside a webview to developers as a native application, but when only a very small percentage of the application is a native component, it is difficult to justify it being a native application.

Building an entire application within a webview may be slick and easy, but it does not come without penalty.

The thing is, webviews are slow to process things. They were slow five years ago and they are still slow. Trading native UI components such as NSButton for an HTML Button seriously affects performance. Android and iOS were optimized to process and render these native components, not what was found inside a webview.

It’s not a native app unless the app uses the stock controls Apple blesses.

I don’t find this statement to be true. There are plenty of developers creating custom components for Android and iOS. Take for example, the custom signature pad component for Android. This custom UI component extends native Android components to make things possible. The difference here is that it extends a native component rather than uses a native component.

It’s okay because it draws rectangles on UIView instead of drawing rectangles on a div in a web layer?

One or two rectangles aren’t going to make a difference where or how it is rendered. In the long run, Android and iOS knows how to better process the native components, not what’s crammed inside the webview. Anyone heard of Crosswalk for Android? Some versions of Android have a webview so terrible, that it is often unusable with Ionic applications.

Native Features can be Extended with Plugins

This is where things get interesting. Ionic and Apache Cordova applications can gain native features that exit the webview through the use of a plugin. These plugins are Apache Cordova wrappers that wrap native classes and libraries in a way that Apache Cordova applications can understand.

Does this make the application native? Well, it depends on how it is being sold to developers. I prefer to think that we’ve now got a hybrid web application with native features, rather than a native application.

Max Lynch had written another article on the topic of plugin creation titled, How to Write Cordova Plugins. While possible to create plugins with native features, they aren’t always easy. You certainly can’t reference native classes directly in your application without a plugin. If you can’t access native features directly, is it still a native application?

How a Mobile Application was Developed is Irrelevant to End Users

At the end of the day, how you develop a mobile application doesn’t matter. The final result that you ship to users is what matters. When I download applications from Google Play, as long as the application looks good, performs well, and gets the job done, I keep it on my device.

To end users, a native app means they can find and install the app in the App Stores. They can run it on their phone instead of opening a browser. The app works offline, stores their login session, can take pictures and do things that Safari just can’t yet on its own.

I recently got into Bitcoin and started using BitPay. It is an attractive application, but it is slow to do anything from animations to basic functions. After having done some research I learned that it was created with Ionic Framework. When I downloaded the application I had no idea it was an Ionic Framework application until I started to dig around, but it got me thinking about why I dropped Apache Cordova development for my own applications.

The applications I was developing for iOS and Android with Ionic Framework were slow even though they weren’t doing much. Coming from high performance native Android development with Java, this was no good.

When a user, often non-technical, gets a bad application, they are only going to see it as a bad application and review it as such, regardless on how it was developed. The catch here is that some of the fixes to make an application good are going to require more than what a webview or plugins can offer.

What About React Native, NativeScript, and Similar?

There are plenty of mobile development frameworks out there, some of which that use JavaScript and HTML, and are often confused with hybrid development.

Frameworks such as NativeScript and React Native use HTML / XML and JavaScript to build mobile applications, just like Ionic Framework and Apache Cordova, but the exception here is that they are not bundled into a webview. These native frameworks tie into the native components and classes using JavaScript.

Does this mean you can’t use a webview with these frameworks? You can use a webview and there are circumstances where you might want to, but at least your entire application won’t rely on it.

Conclusion

Depending on how you look at an Ionic Framework application, it could be considered native, but I wouldn’t call it that. You’re developing mobile applications that use native features with web components which make it better suited to be called hybrid web development.

To end users, “hybrid” apps like those created with Cordova/Ionic are native apps. Why are we so afraid to call them that?

While not impossible to make a bad application using pure native or a native framework, it is much easier to create a bad application with a hybrid framework. For as long as Ionic Framework hybrid applications reside in a webview, developers should feel embarrassed to say their Ionic Framework application is native.

Nic Raboy

Nic Raboy is an advocate of modern web and mobile development technologies. He has experience in Java, JavaScript, Golang and a variety of frameworks such as Angular, NativeScript, and Apache Cordova. Nic writes about his development experiences related to making web and mobile development easier to understand.

  • TL;DR i agree ionic apps are not native.

    Good point. Being an ionic dev myself who has developed nativescript apps also, i consider ionic apps as hybrid only. When i pitch my prospective clients, i always tell them the pros and cons of both hybrid and native apps. And depending on the requirements I either go in for a hybrid app or a native app.

    I ALWAYS tell them that it is a hybrid app when I develop with ionic because of varying performance on android as it is a deal breaker. However with ionic 2+ the performance has increased a lot as android itself is getting better and new ionic is very fast.

    • Yep, if the project makes sense, go for it. However, they shouldn’t be advertising it as something it’s not.

      • Hi Nic,
        Its been a while since I stopped by.
        Quick question by “they”. Do you mean Ionic is advertising it or that Max is advertising it ?

        • When a company leader writes about their company, they are representing the opinions of the company. So if Max is saying Ionic apps are native, then the company is saying the same thing. At least that’s how I see it.

          • Fair enough, thanks for clearing that up.