Cross-Platform Desktop Applications: What Are They, How They’re Built, and Where They Excel


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Cross-platform desktop applications hold a significant edge over native applications as they can work on multiple operating systems. However, before investing in cross-platform application development, decision makers must know their benefits and limitations and whether cross-platform applications suit their needs. Here’s a deep dive.

In 2021, more than 340 million personal computers (PCs) were shipped across the world. While the number is expected to decline slightly this year, the total number of desktops worldwide is now measured in billions. Even with the rapid uptake of mobile devices taking a bite out of PC sales, desktops remain popular, both for personal and business use.

Two operating systems (OS) dominate this desktop 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 farther 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 efforts. However, thanks to the evolution of cross-platform desktop applications, it is now possible for companies to expand their market reach without designing multiple, OS-specific apps.

In this piece, we will break down cross-platform desktop app basics, look at common building frameworks, explore where these apps excel and consider where cross-platform operations may struggle.

What is a Cross-Platform Desktop Application?

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

For cross-platform apps to work, they need to leverage programming languages and OS-agnostic frameworks. Popular languages include C+, C++, JavaScript, and Angular, while CSS and HTML frameworks are often used for web-based apps. 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 create a cross-platform application, developers also need the right toolsets. Common options include React Native, Flutter, Xamarin, Qt, and Node.js, each of which takes a different approach to app design. For example, React Native makes it easy to seamlessly integrate third-party libraries, while Qt leverages GUI widgets and quick modules to make the programming process easier. Tools like Node.js, meanwhile, allow developers to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for both client- and server-side app development.

See More: How Low Code Platform Accelerates Digital Transformation

Three Common Cross-Platform Development Approaches

Along with the programming languages, frameworks, and toolsets, developers must also decide on their ideal app-building approach. There’s no “right” answer here — instead, teams need to consider what type of app they’re building, where it’s going to run, and what functions it needs to have.

Three common cross-platform development approaches include:

Cross-compilation: Cross-compilers transform 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 applications and are looking to make the cross-platform move.

Virtual machine (VM): Virtual machines offer development environments that aren’t tied to any specific OS or technology stacks. This makes it possible for teams to easily test code across multiple platforms without needing multiple, discrete devices.

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

Benefits of Cross-Platform Applications

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

  1. Greater application reach: The more platforms your app runs on, the greater your reach. Instead of designing and distributing an app for Windows and then starting the process over for OS X, then for Linux, then for Chrome, you can create an application ready for all platforms from day one. This naturally increases your distribution options and increases your reach.
  2. Streamlined updates: Native apps must be updated individually to reflect platform changes. With a cross-platform application, however, you can make a single change — such as linking to an updated library or new API — which will then take effect across all platforms. This reduces both 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, the overall complexity is reduced. Instead of searching multiple sets of code for a configuration error network issue, developers have only one set of source code to analyze.
  4. Improved cost control: Each native app requires end-to-end development, meaning companies spend more on hiring design and development teams or diverting in-house resources to these projects. With cross-platform apps, both design and maintenance are centralized.
  5. Simplified implementation: Using some of the toolsets mentioned above, teams can quickly and easily implement apps across multiple platforms, thus reducing the amount of time and effort required for effective deployment.
  6. Consistent design and experience: Regardless of the platform, users expect applications to offer a consistent design and uniform experience. Cross-platform apps allow teams to create apps that work across multiple operating systems — from Windows to Linux to OS X — but that offer similar forms and functions. This makes it easy for users to transition between different devices without having to relearn how your app works and what it can do.

See More: What Is a Software Engine? Types, Applications, and Importance

Potential Cross-Platform Pitfalls

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

Cross-platform apps, by contrast, may struggle to make the best use of desktop hardware, instead occupying a middle ground between performance and portability. While new coding languages have helped narrow the gap between native and cross-platform performance, apps that require high-fidelity graphics rendering or multimedia streaming are often built using native OS languages to ensure compatibility and speed.

Security is also a potential challenge for cross-platform apps. Here’s why: Since native apps are designed to run on a single platform, they’re capable of complete integration with OS security tools. Cross-platform apps, however, are naturally designed to work across more than one platform. As a result, security solutions are typically built directly into applications to reduce the risk of potential code conflicts. But with more platform connections comes a greater attack surface — for example, a security flaw in one OS could lead to cross-platform app compromise. Attackers could then exploit this vulnerability to include all cross-platform app versions, expanding their potential target pool.

As a result, cross-platform app developers are well-served using machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools capable of learning common attack patterns and intelligently pinpointing potential avenues of compromise.

Cross-platform desktop apps: The final verdict

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

However, if the goal is to expand market reach and eliminate the duplication of work that comes with building multiple functionally similar apps for different operating systems, cross-platform may provide the ideal compromise.

Do you have any thoughts on the benefits of cross-platform application development over native apps? Share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We’d love to know!

Image source: Shutterstock


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