If you’ve read my cross-platform guide for free tools but found you need more services and support, you’ve come to the right place. And if you choose a small budget cross-platform mobile app development tool, you will give your mobile project a real fighting chance in the marketplace.
Monaca is a Japanese company that took the PhoneGap concept to its extreme: provide an IDE, mobile user interface, a command line tool, backend services and cloud storage on top of Apache Cordova. If you want an all-in-one solution that offers an MBaaS (mobile backend as a service) complete with storage and push notifications, Monaca may be the tool for you.
Monaca incorporates the open-source Onsen UI, which, much like Framework7, helps developers replicate the look and feel of native mobile applications. And Monaca remains framework-agnostic: developers can choose from jQuery, Angular 1/2, React, Vue and others.
Pros: Monaca permits developers to work in their favorite coding environments (including Visual Studio). Monaca also offers back-end services like cloud storage, push notifications, and more in a convenient one-stop-shop package. Monaca is also privately funded, so it is less vulnerable to external investor demands and market trends (ideally).
Cons: For teams growing beyond three members or applications with more than of 1,000 daily active users, Monaca can be problematic even at its top tier. However, they do provide custom enterprise service agreements for organizations that wish to deepen their commitment to the platform.
Cocoon took the concept behind Manifold (detailed in the free tools comparison) and narrowed its focus to mobile platforms. Cocoon abstracts the build process behind a cloud interface, and that interface allows developers to control aspects of their native builds. For example, developers control their plugin dependencies right from the cloud interface—no knowledge of Cordova application structure required.
Cocoon also specializes in the conversion from web application to mobile application. But, it supports custom offline applications as well. And like similar tools, Cocoon relies on the Crosswalk Project for its Android WebView (and WkWebView as its underlying iOS WebView implementation). Above these tools, they’ve made their own tweaks and dubbed the resulting technologies, WebView+ and Canvas+. WebView+ is recommended for apps, and Canvas+ for WebGL and other accelerated canvas applications (games, AR, maps).
Cons: Some may find Cocoon’s minimalism and thin layer of abstraction too little bang for their developer buck. If you’re one of them, you should search for something other than Canvas+/WebView+ and a cloud-enabled build system.
Trigger is a unique entry in this part of the list: it does not operate on the freemium model (free account option). Developers can run a 14-day trial on any available package to test out the tool, After that, the lowest package permits a single developer to work on a single application.
Pros: Their biggest advantage over Cordova-based solutions is their build speed. They claim to generate native packages on their cloud in under two seconds. Paid-only options also provide a bit of comfort to those doubting the durability of freemium business models.
Cons: Development on Trigger seems to have gone cold. Screenshots are out of date, the blog hasn’t seen an update since a service outage in 2016, and many of the featured applications on Trigger’s landing pages no longer exist. Buyer beware: Trigger might be a zombie.
For example, to extend Android’s native Activity component, a developer would begin with a Ruby class definition:
And this class may now override Activity’s methods using Ruby syntax:
As a consequence of this one-to-one relationship with native APIs, the developer is not capable of reusing interface elements across platforms, but may reuse application logic. This is why few of RubyMotion’s sample applications are cross-platform.
Pros: Ruby! Simplify your codebase dramatically by using the modern era’s most developer-friendly language. RubyMotion also allows developers to incorporate Gems, JAR files, and CocoaPods packages into their native builds.
Cons: Code reuse is limited and developers are required to learn the native APIs before they can begin writing their applications. RubyMotion more closely resembles a porous runtime layer than a true cross-platform solution. And development with RubyMotion is limited to macOS.
6. Codename One
At the lower price tiers, Codename One projects compile only on their proprietary cloud servers. But developers may write Codename One apps in Eclipse, NetBeans and IntelliJ IDEs. And not to be outdone, Codename One is capable of incorporating native libraries through custom interpreters written by developers.
Pros: A true write-once-run-anywhere solution for those who prefer Java and working in IDEs. Codename One is also a mature offering that began as early as 2012 and remains a thriving platform today. Thanks to its Java base, it is capable of deploying your application to more platforms than any other tool in this list.
Cons: Codename One is absolute lock-in. Once you’ve written a Codename One application, there is no competitor capable of building and deploying your application at a better rate or with additional features. And unfortunately, styling the applications is quite difficult. Styling is so challenging that Shai Almog, Codename One’s co-founder, felt compelled to write a blog post about how to convert a Photoshop design into a Codename One theme — it’s rough.
AppGyver is a low-code tool. These tools aim to reduce development time by enabling developers to orchestrate interface, data and logic through purely graphical representations. And that’s a fancy way of saying that what used to take hours with native development can be done in minutes with drag-and-drop low-code tools.
AppGyver is among the most recent entrants into this category, and thus offers a modern-looking approach to visual development. But, despite its age, it has a healthy roster of clients that include Disney, IBM, Intel and others. Like other low-code tools, it is also open to the “citizen developer.” Citizen developers are non-IT individuals with an development bent who are capable of learning the platform and contributing to the team’s projects. And due to its nature, it is a hybrid front-end-to-back-end development environment where logic exists both on the device and on AppGyver’s cloud (or your own on-premises installation).
Pros: AppGyver is five-years-old, which means they’re likely more nimble than entrenched competitors. And with AppGyver, you can develop entirely in the browser—no need to install a disk-space-devouring IDE.
Cons: As a consequence of its youth, AppGyver may be a tough sell for IT managers who expect long-lasting durability from their vendors.
By their own claim, over 60% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Sencha in one way or another. This list includes heavy hitters like Google, Samsung, and Cisco. Sencha is a safe bet for any organization migrating their existing web application teams to mobile.
Pros: Sencha is one of the most trusted cross-platform mobile development tools in the industry. Developers can incorporate Sencha into Visual Studio, JetBrains, and Eclipse IDEs. And tools like Architect, Test, and Cmd help deliver mobile and web applications faster than traditional development environments. And, according to a user on G2 Crowd, “the language is extensively documented and very extensive” with “components for almost every conceivable need.”
Cons: A user reported to G2 Crowd that there is an issue with performance on Android devices and that extensions developed for early Sencha Touch releases won’t compile for later releases. In addition, licensing tiers appear intentionally complicated. And it’s unclear as to which features come with which product.
9. Zoho AppCreator
Zoho is the reigning monarch of “how-to-integrate-right,” unlike other tools that deliver monstrous attempts at vertical integration. Zoho’s vast army of business-related apps range from CRM tools to bug trackers to one of its latest entries, AppCreator. If you’ve invested in Zoho services already and are in need of a specialized mobile interface, look no further than AppCreator.
Zoho touts AppCreator as a competitor to Salesforce’s Lightning editor. However, AppCreator looks modern and allows app makers to write code as well—if they so desire. So while it’s marketed like a no-code tool, it’s closer to a low-code tool such as AppGyver. AppCreator comes with a slew of predefined widget elements, much like Lightning components, that developers can use to build cross-platform apps that suit their business needs. But since this tool is incredibly high-level, don’t expect to use it for B2C situations (unless a basic interface will suffice).
Pros: Apps built with AppCreator shine through as performant, native mobile applications; these will easily fool the untrained eye. AppCreator’s low-code approach and simple IDE interface allow anyone to start delivering applications within hours, if not minutes. In fact, fans tout how easy it is on sites such as Capterra.
Cons: This tool is currently invitation-only, which makes it hard to budget for. Also, you may not find the level of support or bandwidth capable of handling your organization’s needs.
10. DIY Solutions
A bespoke, DIY cross-platform solution may not be possible every time—due to several constraints related to cost and time to market— but developers may tailor it to their needs. For example, if you feel that alternatives are too opinionated or accompanied by excessive features, your bespoke solution will do precisely what your application requires and nothing more. However, a custom solution requires you to learn to develop for native platforms.
The bespoke approach demands a minimal comprehension of all platforms on which you plan to release your application. Quora (iOS, Android) and Amazon (iOS, Android) provide two examples of bespoke cross-platform applications in the wild. Both Amazon and Quora built native wrappers around their mobile web portals to provide a hybrid solution for their users. To learn more about Quora’s process, read Spencer Chan’s QCon presentation.
Pros: Reduce framework bloat by building the precise solution your application requires. With your own solution, you know exactly how it works; no black box magic here. And by building it yourself, you are best prepared to optimize performance for your specific use case.
Cons: You need to have the time or resources to learn each platform. And with each subsequent native API revision, you are responsible for updating and improving your native shells. And by building the solution yourself, you front-load your project with additional boilerplate work.
All Good Things Come to an End
That’s the end of the small budget cross-platform mobile development solutions list — yay! If you felt the options in the list were too pricey, take a look at the guide for free cross-platform tools. But if the support and services of these tools are not enough for your needs, jump to the enterprise cross-platform mobile development tools (coming October 3).
Thanks for reading! Have you tried any tools on this list? Are you excited to try a new one out? Let me know in the comments.