Last Updated on
May 11, 2024

Flutter vs Native App Development

Published in
Key takeaways:

Back in the early days of mobile apps, Native development was the only way to get apps launched on the App Store of Google Play.  

Technology evolves though, and now there are other options. 

One is cross-platform app development. 

Flutter has emerged as one of, if not the, top choices for cross platform development. It’s used in thousands of projects from small hobby apps to massive tech companies with millions of users. 

But why would you choose Flutter over native development, and vice versa? When should you opt for one or the other? What are the key advantages and drawbacks of each? 

In this article we’re going to break it all down. We’ll start with a brief introduction to both Flutter and native development, then we’ll go deep into the relative strengths of each. 

By the end you’ll have a solid idea of when to go with one or the other.  

What is native Development? 

Unless you’ve been living under a brick - you know that there are two key mobile operating systems: iOS and Android. 

Just like their desktop counterparts, Windows and MacOS, iOS and Android work very differently on a fundamental level - from the way the UI displays to how the software interacts with the chip. 

The software and the hardware is very different on each - which means that the development tools and programming languages used to develop apps are very different on each too. 

Traditionally this means:

  • On iOS: Swift (or Objective C) as a programming language, Xcode and Simulator for development and testing environments
  • On Android - Kotlin or Java for programming, Android Studio and SDK 

For both platforms, you'll work with the native APIs and build each app in a radically different manner - just like if you were developing desktop apps for MacOS vs Windows. 

Developing apps natively is a lot of coding

You’ll need specialists skilled in each of these stacks, who will work on two separate codebases to develop and maintain the apps. 

Practically this means iOS and Android developers, designers, PMs, and poentially dedicated backend developers too. 

How is Flutter Different?

Recall how native development has you working on two separate codebases. 

These share nothing in common with each other, on the front end at least. You can’t reuse any of the code, and every single piece of the UI and functionality needs to be built separately for each. 

As you can imagine, this is very expensive. Specialized talent costs top dollar, and you’ll need thousands of developer hours over 6+ months to build even relatively simple apps. 

This is why native apps typically cost $200k+ to ship first versions on each platform. 

Flutter simplifies things and makes them more efficient. 

Flutter is a cross-platform framework. 

This means you can build the apps once, and have them run on both iOS and Android.

iOS and Android apps - from one codebase

It’s a UI kit and Dart framework for developing from one single codebase. Because it compiles into native code for each platform, you effectively halve your work. 

At the core of Flutter is a set of pre-built widgets that are leveraged to build the UI. With these widgets and the Dart programming language, you can create sophisticated apps for practically any device size. 

When the apps run on a device, Flutter uses Skia, an open source 2D graphics engine to “paint” whichever element, animation, or interaction needs to be rendered. 

On both operating systems, this works in broadly the same manner. Flutter also allows you to customize the UI for each specifically, making sure the apps “look the part” on each platform. 

Let’s summarize Flutter’s core features:

  • One codebase: Flutter lets you develop apps for iOS, Android, the web, and desktop from one codebase. You can typically reuse 90% of your code across platforms. 
  • Hot reload: Dart allows you to see changes to the code instantly, this is very helpful for developer productivity
  • Rich Widget Catalog: Flutter has over 14 categories of widget to work with .
  • Performance: Flutter apps compile Ahead Of Time (AOT) into native machine code for iOS and Android
  • Customizable and Flexible: Flutter’s layered architecture and “control” of every pixel on the screen gives plenty of design freedom 

So, that’s an overview of Flutter. 

The key point is that, compared to native development, it lets you build apps for multiple platforms from a single codebase. 

We covered Flutter in more detail in this article - Flutter 101 - if you want a deeper dive.

For now we’ll move on with the comparison. 

Flutter vs Native development - which is better? 

As with many things in tech, things aren’t “better” or “worse” in a blanket sense.

Rather, different technology choices carry different costs, opportunities, advantages and drawbacks. 

It’s no different when it comes to Flutter vs native development. 

Generally, the overall theme is that Flutter is more efficient, faster and lower cost - and that native is (potentially) higher performance and can give access to more cutting edge tech. 

But, the real life performance difference is probably only noticeable or relevant if you need really high end performance. 

Let’s break it down. 

Pros and Cons of Native Development

The key advantages of native development boil down to 3 essential points. 

  1. Performance
  2. Features 
  3. Ecosystem 

Because native apps are compiled into code that native to the platform, and use the native APIs, they can have the highest possible level of performance. 

By “performance” we mean they have the potential to run the most computationally demanding applications fast and efficiently. 

This isn’t a given, it's a matter of potential, they need to be built optimally to harness it. 

Also, we’re talking about a marginal difference for the average app. For most apps, you won’t see a huge performance difference between Flutter and native.

But if we’re talking apps that rely on large amounts of real-time data or graphics processing, graphics requirements, or complex UI transitions - native might be necessary. Think high-end games, trading platforms, and other apps where a small lag could ruin the experience., 

Native apps are also better for access to the latest platform features. 

When a big update rolls out and some sophisticated new capability is released by Apple or Google - native app developers get immediate access. 

Whether its new UI elements, security features, sensor capabilities - or anything else - they can be worked with and integrated as soon as they’re available. 

This can be critical for apps relying on the cutting edge of tech, and with innovative and sophisticated products. 

Now, Flutter can do almost all the same things - but there might be a lag for it to be integrated, and tradeoffs in how they're used. 

Finally, the native development ecosystem is rich and expansive. There are countless libraries, toolsets, and developers in the communities that you can leverage for your project. This is true for Flutter to a degree too - but native has the advantage here. 

Now, there are of course drawbacks too. 

Native apps are expensive, harder to develop, and take longer to build. 

They typically require more expansive teams, cost twice as much (on average), and are far slower to market. The ongoing maintenance costs are also doubled compared to cross-platform. 

Now move onto Flutter. 

Flutter pros and cons

The real key advantage of Flutter relative to native is that Flutter apps are:

  • Faster to develop 
  • Cheaper to develop 
  • Easier to update and maintain 

It is an oversimplification - but essentially all work, both upfront and ongoing, is effectively halved due to the single codebase. 

Other factors help too, Flutter’s hot reload for example boosts development speed and productivity, and the rich widget library makes it possible to quickly build sophisticated UIs. 

Another advantage some developers note is UI consistency. 

Flutter makes it easier to get a consistent, branded look and feel across platforms. This may or may not be important to you. 

Flutter also comes with its downsides. 

The biggest one is the potentially lower performance for demanding apps. As we’ve said, this probably only matters for a small subset of businesses, but it is significant. 

Flutter is also somewhat notorious for resulting in a large app size, which could also be a downside for some users’ perspectives. This has improved though in recent versions. 

Finally - the range of third party libraries is smaller than for native development. This might mean that if you have some specific niche requirement you need to create custom solutions with native code. 

Again, this is probably only going to be a problem if you have very unique requirements. 

Flutter & Native App Examples 

Now we know the key differences between these two app development approaches - let's look at some examples of famous apps built with each. 

Remember that there are countless thousands of apps built natively and with Flutter, these are just a few standout examples to show what’s possible. 

Native App Examples 

Many of the “big tech” apps you use are probably built natively, at least to a degree. Here are a few good examples:

  • WhatsApp native apps are lightning fast, integrating flawlessly with device features like the microphone, camera, and more 
  • Spotify’s native apps handle complex tasks like audio playback, real-time data synchronization, and deep integration with device hardware
  • Waze, a GPS navigation software, was developed natively to efficiently handle real-time GPS data, route mapping, user updates, and more 

Flutter App Examples 

The above apps could also have been built with Flutter these days, albeit with potential tradeoffs. Flutter powers thousands of high end apps like:

  • Google Ads allows users to manage ad campaigns, and showcases how Flutter can be used to build complex and data heavy business apps 
  • Reflectly uses AI to help users create a personal journal, leveraging Flutter to create a pleasing and consistent UX across iOS and Android
  • Philips Hue controls smart lighting and is built with Flutter, demonstrating Flutter's potential in integrating with IoT devices

As you can see, you can use Flutter for a wide range of applications, and its performance and features are only getting better. 

Flutter vs Native use cases 

There are still ideal use cases for each, situations in which Flutter or native is likely to be the best choice. 

Let’s look at the most important ones. 

  • Cross-Platform Development without demanding requirements - if you want to keep things simple and work from the one codebase, Flutter is the way to go, and it will suit you fine for most applications. This is great for lean startups and bootstrapped businesses that want to keep things simple. 
  • Limited budget and tight deadlines - companies or individual developers working with limited budgets and tight timelines benefit from Flutter's rapid development features. Using Flutter can potentially save hundreds of thousands and months of work. 
  • UI-Focused Applications - Flutter shines for custom, visually appealing UIs thanks to its widget-based architecture. For design and UX focused brands, this can be great.
  • Prototype Development - when the goal is to quickly validate an idea or a concept, Flutter’s development speed and ease of use make it a better choice. 

So Flutter is probably the right choice if your requirements are not extreme, and budget and time to market are important to you. 

When to choose Native Development 

Native development is still the “gold standard” when it comes to some use cases. 

  • High-performance requirements - for computationally heavy apps like high-end games, augmented reality (AR), or video processing applications, native development is preferred.
  • Cutting-edge features - if you want to be first to market with the latest platform features as soon as they’re released, the native iOS and Android APIs are the way to do it 
  • Complex hardware interactions - applications that rely on intricate and extensive interactions with bluetooth, GPS, various sensors like the accelerometer and such, often benefit from being native. 
  • Regulatory requirements - in some industries like banking or healthcare, there are extremely stringent requirements for security and data handling. The fine control of native development might make compliance easier in some cases. 

These are the only major reasons you might want to take on the additional cost and time investment to choose native over Flutter. 

Flutter vs other options 

Flutter vs native is only one angle.

You can also compare Flutter itself to other app development methods and cross-platform frameworks.

For example, React Native is the main cross-platform rival to Flutter which we compared here.

We also compared Flutter to Android's native language - Kotlin - and the native language of iOS, Swift.

For now though, let's wrap up the comparison with native development.

Flutter vs Native: the bottom line 

So to sum up. 

Native development is for when you need something special or unusual. They’ll cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and take teams of specialists 6+ months to develop. 

Flutter these days is good for almost everything, and is more affordable and faster to develop apps with. 

We hope you enjoyed this primer on Flutter vs native development, and it helps you understand the options better. 

Now to conclude, a shameless plug of our own platform, MobiLoud, which is better than Flutter and native development for most businesses.  

Why MobiLoud is better than Flutter and Native development

Flutter apps will still generally cost six figures though and take months to build. Even though you only have one codebase, it still requires constant and skilled maintenance.

There’s a much better option for 90% of businesses - our service at MobiLoud. 

We build you high-end apps for iOS and Android in just weeks, for a fraction of the cost of both Flutter and native development. 

We convert your existing website or web app into native apps - adding all the UI elements and features you need to leverage the apps fully and give your users a great UX. 

It’s hyper efficient, results in fantastic apps, and is used by thousands of businesses including multi billion dollar brands. 

The Jack & Jones app - powered by MobiLoud

They take no effort on your part to maintain - our team handles all that for you - so you can just focus on making them work for the business. 

Because you can get started right away, there’s no need to hire anyone, and the cost is small business friendly - MobiLoud is effectively zero risk and all upside compared to Flutter or native development. 

In summary - if you have a web app, site, or store already, MobiLoud is probably the best option. 

To get all your questions answered, and learn how MobiLoud stacks up in more detail - get in touch with one of our team. 

Book a demo call today!

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