Cross-platform desktop apps: What are they, how are they built, and where do they excel?

Cross-platform desktop apps have a significant advantage over native apps because they can run on multiple operating systems. However, before investing in the development of cross-platform applications, decision makers should know their advantages and limitations and whether cross-platform applications meet their needs. Here is a deep dive.

In 2021, more than 340 million personal computers (PCs) have been shipped around the world. While the number is expected to decline slightly this year, the total number of desktop computers in the world is now measured in the billions. Even with the rapid adoption of mobile devices weighing on PC sales, desktop computers remain popular for both personal and business use.

Two operating systems (OS) dominate this desktop computer market: Windows and OS X. According to recent data, 74.99% of PCs worldwide run Windows, while 14.48% run OS X. Also in the running (albeit further back) are Linux at 2.81% and Chrome OS at 2.41%.

Historically, desktop application development has focused on a single platform, forcing developers to choose between Windows, OS X, or Linux. However, thanks to the evolution of cross-platform desktop applications, it is now possible for companies to expand their market reach without building multiple OS-specific applications.

In this article, we’ll break down the basics of cross-platform desktop apps, examine common build frameworks, explore where these apps excel, and examine where cross-platform operations may struggle.

What is a cross-platform desktop app?

A cross-platform desktop application is coded once but designed to work on multiple operating systems. This distinguishes it from a native application, built using platform-specific tools and software development kits (SDKs), which only works on one platform.

For cross-platform applications to work, they must take advantage of operating system-independent programming languages ​​and frameworks. Popular languages ​​include C+, C++, JavaScript, and Angular, while CSS and HTML frameworks are often used for web applications. Application programming interfaces (Apis) are also used to integrate multiple open-source code libraries that provide familiar functions, eliminating the need for teams to repeatedly develop the same functions from scratch.

To build a cross-platform app, developers also need the right tools. Common options include React Native, Flutter, Xamarin, Qt, and Node.js, each taking a different approach to app design. For example, React Native facilitates seamless integration of third-party libraries, while Qt leverages GUI widgets and quick modules to ease the programming process. Tools like Node.js, on the other hand, allow developers to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for client-side and server-side application development.

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Three common cross-platform development approaches

Along with programming languages, frameworks, and toolsets, developers also need to decide on their ideal approach to building apps. There is no “right” answer here. Instead, teams need to think about what kind of app they’re building, where it’s going to run, and what functions it should have.

Three common cross-platform development approaches include:

Cross-compilation: Cross-compilers turn high-level code written in one language into lower-level executable code written in another. This approach is a good choice for teams that have already developed native apps and are looking to go cross-platform.

Virtual Machine (VM): Virtual machines provide development environments that are not tied to any specific operating system or technology stack. This allows teams to easily test code across multiple platforms without the need for multiple discrete devices.

Web-based: These frameworks rely on technologies such as HTML, HTML5, Javascript, and CSS to develop web applications that work on any platform to provide a unified experience.

Benefits of Cross-Platform Apps

Choosing a cross-platform application approach offers several advantages, such as:

  1. Greater scope of applications: The more platforms your app runs on, the greater your reach. Instead of building and releasing an app for Windows, then repeating the process for OS X, then Linux, then Chrome, you can build an app that’s ready for all platforms from day one. This naturally increases your distribution options and increases your reach.
  2. Simplified updates: Native apps must be updated individually to reflect platform changes. With a cross-platform app, however, you can make a single change, such as a link to an updated library or a new API, which will then take effect across all platforms. This both reduces the time and effort required for updates and makes it easier to view and manage application code.
  3. Reduced complexity: Since code can be compiled once for multiple platforms, overall complexity is reduced. Instead of searching multiple sets of code for a configuration error network issue, developers only have one set of source code to analyze.
  4. Better cost control: Every native app requires end-to-end development, which means companies spend more on hiring design and development teams or diverting internal resources to these projects. With cross-platform applications, design and maintenance are centralized.
  5. Simplified implementation: Using some of the toolsets mentioned above, teams can quickly and easily implement applications across multiple platforms, reducing the time and effort required for effective deployment.
  6. Consistent design and experience: Regardless of the platform, users expect apps to provide a consistent design and uniform experience. Cross-platform apps allow teams to build apps that work across multiple operating systems — from Windows to Linux to OS X — but offer similar form and function. This allows users to easily switch between devices without having to re-learn how your app works and what it can do.

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Cross-platform potential pitfalls

One of the biggest challenges associated with cross-platform apps is performance. Since native apps are designed specifically with a single platform in mind, they are designed to use proprietary technologies that help improve performance and reduce potential conflicts with existing hardware or other services. software.

Cross-platform apps, on the other hand, can struggle to get the most out of desktop hardware, instead occupying a middle ground between performance and portability. While new coding languages ​​have helped bridge the gap between native and cross-platform performance, applications that require high-fidelity graphics rendering or media streaming are often built using native operating system languages ​​to ensure compatibility and speed.

Security is also a potential challenge for cross-platform apps. Here’s why: Because native apps are designed to run on a single platform, they are capable of full integration with operating system security tools. However, cross-platform apps are naturally designed to work on multiple platforms. Therefore, security solutions are usually built directly into applications to reduce the risk of potential code conflicts. But with more platform connections comes a larger attack surface – for example, a security flaw in an operating system could lead to a cross-platform application being compromised. Attackers could then exploit this vulnerability to include all versions of cross-platform apps, expanding their potential target pool.

As a result, cross-platform app developers are well served by using machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can learn common attack patterns and intelligently identify pathways to compromise. potential.

Cross-Platform Desktop Apps: The Final Verdict

If performance and full hardware support are top priorities, native application development is often the best bet.

However, if the goal is to extend market reach and eliminate the duplication of work that accompanies creating multiple functionally similar applications for different operating systems, cross-platform may provide the ideal compromise.

Do you have any thoughts on the benefits of cross-platform app development over native apps? Share with us on Facebook, TwitterWhere LinkedIn. We would like to know!

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